Soulful singing

The StreetSong MN choir focuses on creating community and the effort to end homelessness.
The StreetSong MN choir focuses on creating community and the effort to end homelessness.

As I sat and listened to the choir practice over a sunny, summer noon hour at Central Lutheran Church of Minneapolis, I was aware of how much music adds to my church experience.

The joyful noise from the choir was of the stuff that nurtures my spirit and soothes my soul. And the souls in this choir could flat-out sing.

A new outlook

What’s remarkable about the StreetSong MN choir is that some of them have been without a home, a few are still homeless and others simply care about the homeless and are members of their choirs at the Basilica of St. Mary, Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church and Central Lutheran.

The choir’s polished sound is no accident. It’s been organized, trained and rehearsed for the past three years by the music directors at the Basilica (Teri Larson) and Hennepin Avenue (Bill Mathis).

They’ve neither lowered the bar, nor relaxed the standards. In the process, they’ve brought purpose and pride to members like 60-year-old Sherry Shannon.

She’s a mother of four grown children who’s known homelessness first hand.

“I had three kids when I found myself at Mary Jo’s place,” Shannon said of Mary Jo Copeland’s Sharing & Caring Hands in Minneapolis. “I’ve got a job now and a little apartment.”

But life still isn’t easy.

“My boys have been in trouble and I still worry about them. When I come to sing on Mondays, it helps me to stay focused,” she said. “This is my family. I’m happy. I’m relaxed. And I found out I can sing. I feel the power in my soul and being around music makes me feel like someone.”

Feel like someone. That got my attention. How many times, I thought, have I passed a panhandler on the street, a man on the exit ramp or a woman on a park bench with a cardboard sign and an endless, aching need: “Homeless. Hungry. Anything will help. Please.”

Expected excellence

This choir, the brainchild of Larson, says to all who come: Welcome to the human race. Here’s a song book. Stretch your back. Up on your toes. Warm up your voice. Now, let’s sing.

On the Monday I was there, Larson played the piano and Mathis directed the choir. They began with What a Wonderful World.

I also learned that Mathis is a perfectionist. If the words are muffled, they sing the chorus again. If it’s too loud, or soft, they do it over. When it’s just right, he smiles and says, “Excellent. Excellent.”

The choir was rehearsing for a benefit concert for the Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness, a collaboration of 16 downtown churches, synagogues and mosques. They’ve also given concerts at the Minneapolis Public Library and the Mall of America during the Christmas season.

Could be anyone

For Larson and Mathis, the choir is more than the music.

“The homeless were a part of society I had no contact with,” Mathis said. “This has put new people in my life, has enriched my life. One guy came to my house for Thanksgiving dinner.”

Mathis said he has a new view of people who find themselves without homes.

“There are way too many ways to be homeless,” he said. “You don’t have to be a drug addict. Or an ex-con. One big medical bill can put you there.”

In an article for The Chorister, Larson wrote: “We have members who used to be homeless. We have members who care deeply or have family members who are homeless. And now I see them as I walk down the street and I say, ‘Hello.’”

Before I said goodbye to the choir, I listened to a soulful, stirring and sweet rendition of a gospel favorite of mine:

“Lord, listen to your children praying. … Send us love. Send us power. Send us grace.”

And all God’s children, including me, say Amen.

Dave Nimmer has had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments or questions to [email protected].