Oberlin Blogs

Going to the Chapel

October 16, 2009

Marsha Lynn Bragg

I recently sang my first hymn in many years: Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Years ago I sang with a gospel choir that doubled as the Sunday morning choir for a little Baptist Church I attended while in college. I say "little" coz the choir and the students who came with some regularity helped fill the pews each week.

The doxology was our benediction song. We'd join hands across the aisle and sing in loud and steady voices before heading out to eat before the cafeteria closed for lunch or catch up on schoolwork we had neglected earlier during the weekend.

That same song was part of the inaugural worship service called A Cappella, an effort by the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the Credo Club, and others to resurrect a onetime tradition of gathering the campus together in one place to worship, meditate, and hear words of inspiration from a local minister or a guest preacher.

I attended the new gathering one Wednesday in the charming Fairchild Chapel in Bosworth Hall. I figure I could spend 25 minutes of my day in spiritual reflection and still get my work done.

Upon entering the chapel in the old stone building, I was struck by the intimacy of the space and the acoustics. Although I had been to Bosworth several times, this was my first time in the chapel. About 20 or so students, faculty and staff members, and perhaps some locals situated themselves in the hard wooden pews as Peter Slowick, artistic director of Credo and a professor of viola in the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, led the service. Credo is essentially a group of exceptionally good singers who sing mostly religious or sacred music.

Slowick explained the idea behind A Cappella: a chance for believers to come together midweek to express their faith in song, meditation, and Scripture reading. He noted that each gathering would be led by a different member of the community--for example, a student or a local clergy person--and although somewhat structured, he hoped the services would be spirit-led, perhaps even reminiscent of the days when the college required all students to attend weekly chapel. Not an unusual practice considering that the college founders were Presbyterian ministers.

This was one tradition, however, that over time fell by the wayside, to lift a phrase from Scripture. There was a point in the college's not too distant history where students began to reject the idea of forced worship, ...er... being required to attend weekly chapel services. Because the college values student input and the liberal arts tradition, after a series of campuswide discussions on the issue and a vote, the college discontinued this practice.

So what of the student, faculty or staff member who enjoyed the midweek break to worship and reflect? I am sure they discovered that the church is not a building made with hands, but the church is within. (Sound familiar?) I am sure they found the time and the space to gather, individually, collectively, and perhaps informally, to worship in their own way. For a town of its size, Oberlin has plenty of churches available for organized worship.

The next A Capella I attended actually had a choir! A conservatory student organized the choir, whose singers represent a good cross section of Oberlin's diversity. Rather than try to get my long underutilized vocal cords to push out a few notes in key, I opted to lip sync while listening to the wondrous harmonies of the student singers, about 18 in total. From the look and sound of it all, they take their music and worship seriously. The music alone was worth taking a midday break.

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