Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Beautiful Music

Sunshine streams in the windows at St. Luke Methodist church, warming the sanctuary's pale yellow walls to a bright glow. The late spring air feels fresh and light. A perfect Sunday morning.

At the front of the sanctuary, just below the choir loft and the pulpit, a dozen children stand in front of folding chairs, looking out over the congregation. They have come to play the annual concert of the St. Luke Hand in Hand Orchestra, sponsored by the church for Shamrock Gardens students.

Each Tuesday afternoon for the past seven years, a group of Shamrock students has crossed Shamrock Drive, instruments in hand, and descended the set of concrete steps that leads to St. Luke's fellowship hall. Once there, they eat snacks, work on their homework, and learn to play violins, violas and cellos, with the guidance of music instructor Maya Johnson and under the watchful eyes of St. Luke volunteers.

St. Luke is an aging church. Most of its members joined half a century or so ago, when the nearby brick ranch houses were brand new, and the young couples who filled them were all white, as were the students at the recently built Shamrock Gardens Elementary. Over time, as neighborhoods and school have diversified, many long-time residents have passed on or moved away. But members of St. Luke have remained, still welcoming newcomers to their streets, still looking after the children in the school across the road.

St Luke members started Hand in Hand ten years ago. They bought sneakers for the kindergarteners, made treats for the teachers and began to acquire orchestra instruments for the fourth and fifth grade orchestra. Three years later, when Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools cut its elementary orchestra program, St. Luke members hired a teacher and organized the weekly parade across the road. Members also tutor, buy glasses for kids without insurance, help pay for field trips and support the school in countless other ways.

It isn't easy for a small church to raise the money for these programs. Twice a year, church members serve up the best church barbecue in Charlotte, as well as brownies, Mountain Dew layer cakes and sweet potato pies. They write grants, and hold sales. Year after year, they find a way. A former school board representative is fond of saying that if every church in Charlotte gave according to its means the way St. Luke does, there wouldn't be a problem in the city.

This morning's service is devoted to children. The congregation starts off singing "Jesus Loves Me," and the text is from Luke 18: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these."

In his meditation, Pastor Richard Clough talks about how much adults can learn from children. He praises the students for the work they've done. Success does not come easy, he says. But when you reach a goal you've worked hard for, accomplishment is sweet. And no one can take it away. You can always look back and remember it.

Then comes time to play. Orchestra members make their way through a series of light, short tunes: "Caribbean Island," "Carolina Breeze," "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." Back in the fall, the students could barely hold the unfamiliar instruments. Now they bow fluidly, in unison, and more or less in tune. To the parents, teachers and friends ranged in the pews, it could not sound more beautiful. The students finish and stand, to loud applause.

Afterwards, the church offers a good-by to Angela Beavers, the Communities in Schools representative for Shamrock, who has worked with the orchestra since its beginning, but who is now leaving Shamrock for a higher-level job. Ms. Beavers has to pause and wipe her eyes as she talks about St. Luke's devotion to music, to children and to God.

Awards follow: medals and trophies to the students, plaques for some of the most devoted volunteers. Relatives and friends smile, take pictures, and sometimes tear up themselves. Everyone exits into the brilliant Sunday sun.

Back home, I tell Parker that he will never in his life meet better people than the members of St. Luke Methodist Church. He nods, although I can tell he is distracted. His mind is full of games and friends and what he's going to do this summer. He can't fully appreciate the spirit that allows you to embrace a stranger's child. But I hope that someday he will look back, and understand.

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