"On a wing and a prayer" has new meaning for the 1,400 members of the First Presbyterian Church.
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the October, 2021 issue
Just in time for the International Day of Peace in September, the church hired a hydraulic lift and theatrical riggers to hang more than 4,000 origami cranes from the sanctuary's forty-five-foot-high ceiling. Church members folded each one by hand, inscribing them with a name of a church member or friend, some of whom were victims of the pandemic. As they worked, they prayed for the people they were honoring. The colorful flock of paper birds will fly through the sanctuary until Advent.
The project is the brainchild of the church's minister of music and fine arts, David VanderMeer. Like other church music directors around the world, he faced daunting challenges during the pandemic, when choirs and congregations disappeared and services went completely virtual.
He began with online choir performances, which are technically challenging, as church choir directors everywhere discovered. Each member recorded himself or herself singing as they watched VanderMeer direct, and then technology took over, blending the voices. For the congregation, he created fifteen different hymn sings--members downloaded a link and sang at home along with the choir. The choir recorded a series of hymns to be used during virtual memorial services of comfort, and during Lent, "lunchbox concerts" featured harp performances, string ensembles, oboe and English horn performances, and others by the choir section leaders.
The church's most ambitious musical undertaking was a virtual variety show with twenty acts. Some members recorded performances on their phones, others made arrangements to meet with VanderMeer in the church so he could make the recording. "We had an organist from the Michigan Theater perform, someone demonstrated baking techniques, a cowboy/cowgirl act, dancing to the music of 'Simple Gifts,' piano players, a member who combined reading and singing of an inspirational work, a boy who performed with a Chinese yo-yo, some members formed a ukulele band, and a group of women who sang 'Stand By Me.' The response was tremendous!"
As VanderMeer worked with technology to provide music to a
homebound congregation, he also worked with a dozen members of the church's visual arts committee, all socially distanced, to cut mountains of colored papers and assemble fourteen-piece origami kits, complete with instructions. Shortly after the state lockdown, volunteers delivered the kits to willing congregation members--and more than 700 began folding and praying.
"It was a brilliant idea. It gave us all something constructive to do at home with our hands and our worries during Covid, something we could all appreciate together when we returned to in-person services," says Sandra McDonald, a retired minister and member of VanderMeer's choir.
But the focus of this artwork is larger than any individual or congregation, according to VanderMeer.
"These are peace cranes," he explains, "folded to commemorate the International Day of Peace, when people around the world are encouraged to participate in acts of peace."
The tradition began in 1955, when a twelve-year-old girl named Sadako Sasaki developed leukemia as a result of her exposure to radiation from the nuclear bomb dropped on her hometown of Hiroshima. When she was hospitalized, her best friend visited her and reminded Sadako of the Japanese legend that anyone who could fold 1,000 origami cranes would have her wish granted. A statue of Sasaki holding a golden crane now stands in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, and every day paper cranes arrive there, sent by people all over the world.
First Presbyterian's members have gradually been returning to the sanctuary on Sunday mornings but not in droves. And most meetings are either virtual or held outdoors. "We follow CDC guidelines and the guidelines set by our synod," McDonald says. Masks are required for congregants, choir members, ministers, and liturgists (although ministers remove their masks for sermons). The pews have been marked for social distancing. But the choir of ninety members, ranging in age from eighteen to the five members in their nineties--all fully vaccinated--once again assemble in the front of the church for weekly Sunday performances.
"Since March of 2020, we learned a lot about ourselves and our abilities to adapt and meet a crisis with creativity, love, and understanding," McDonald says.
VanderMeer adds, "We hope these three-dimensional prayers will inspire us all to serve the Prince of Peace."
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