By: Bobby Switzer
I was neither raised Mennonite nor singing hymns, yet today I find myself ascribing whole-heartedly to both. Each has influenced my life and made me who I am today, and each has affected the other. I sing because I am a person of faith, and my faith grows through song. I remember the day I first heard a congregation sing; it was a day of awakening.
On my way home from a work weekend at Camp Friedenswald, the group with whom I went stopped at Eigth Street Mennonite Church here in Goshen. I had rarely gone to “Sunday” church before this point. I previously only went to Wednesday night youth group at one local church or another with friends. So un-prepared was I that I didn’t pack appropriate church attire. Clothed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, I self-consciously filed in behind my friend Jackson and sat myself down on the pew in the balcony. The church service soon started, and though unsurprisingly I don’t remember the sermon, I remember the first hymn. #226 You are Salt for the Earth, rose from the congregation below. Then the unison verse erupted into the harmonious refrain, and it felt like the world was finally illuminated. From that point on, I’ve been impassioned for hymn singing and congregational song. Nowhere else have I felt God’s presence more than in the context of kindred hearts singing in harmony. It is in these moments of shared song that I’ve developed my theology, where I’ve felt love for those around me, and where I’ve found the most joy.
From the onset, hymn singing has characterized my time at Goshen. The first weekend my RA, Quinn, and I organized a ragtag hymn sing. We recruited Josh Yoder for violin, I played piano and Quinn conducted. Spreading word through Facebook and those awkward first-week friendships, I didn’t expect many people to show, but I was ecstatically surprised when more than 50 people came to Java to sing. From that sing on, I realized that Goshen was a special place, a place of singing and I felt a nudge to help foster that. I started organizing more hymn sings with others. It’s not possible to have a hymn sing by yourself, you need at least 3 other people to cover the other voice parts, and planning goes much the same way. I could not have done anything with hymn club without the help and support of others.
Through the early hymn sings of my freshmen year, I built relationships and friendships with the “regular” singers. After an impromptu sing in the Yoder stairwell, we decided that we should have a group on Facebook dedicated to just that: A group to facilitate somewhat-impromptu hymn sings. So we made one and added as many Goshen students as we could. After a number of sings prompted by that group, a small coalition of us decided that these interspersed sings were great, but we would like to sing more. It is with these seven or so people that hymn club formed.
We started meeting weekly on Tuesday nights at 8:30 in Rieth. I remember walking through the sludge and snow of Goshen in January with my hymnal in hand to the warm and spacious recital hall. We’d take our coats, scarves and boots off and stand in socks circled around the piano. Those early meetings went much like they do today; we’d say a number, give the pitch and sing the hymn. Sometimes the pitch would go astray, or the song would be new and we’d crash as we attempted it, but we would laugh and try again. As we met more and more, we became better at singing through the hymns.
That first year the group remained much the same, and we grew together.
During those Tuesday nights, we forged friendship through song. This was the space where we could share our joys and sorrows and then sing those feelings with others. We developed favorite hymns as a group and as individuals. Today I if I hear a certain hymn, I remember singing it with hymn club and often associate it with a story or a person. The song is a form of communal memory.
The first year we organized a few large hymn sings, sang in the Yoder stairwell and even sang through the halls of Greencroft, a retirement community. While singing in the common space in Greencroft a woman came and asked if we would sing for her mother, who was sick and unable to leave her bed. We gathered around the woman’s bed and sang “Blessed Assurance” and “Amazing Grace.” As the harmonies resonated through the dimly lit room, tears streamed down the faces of mother, daughter and many of us singing. Through those few moments of singing, we could feel a lifetime of precious memories being shared and cherished. When I think of the special moments in hymn club’s history, memories like these come to mind.
Hymn club has grown these last two years. People come for a variety of reasons. For some, hymn club is community and a space filled with friends, and for others it is a moment to breathe, a time for spiritual renewal, or just a time for fun. From the starting group of seven or so, we’ve increased to an average weekly attendance of 20-30. Depending on what’s happening around campus, some weeks we have fewer, and some weeks we have more, but no matter what, there’s always someone there to join in the song.
Beyond the numerous campus hymn sings, we’ve sang frequently at Greencroft. Each winter we go Christmas caroling there. We sang at the Mennonite Relief sale this past fall, had an Intergenerational hymn sing, hosted an Election Day Communion service, invited guest composers and hymn text writers and heard stories from professors. I think many people on campus have participated in at least one of our events, and many find their way to hymn club through those or through their friends.
We will continue in much of what we have been doing, but are excited to take on new endeavors, such as making a CD, and I would welcome any ideas on what else people would like to do.
Hymn Club is open to all and meets every Tuesday at 8:30 PM in Music Center 153.