Saturday, August 30, 2008

First Pres

(This one's long – you might want to get a sandwich or something.)

My first weekend in Dallas was spent in a whirlwind of getting acquainted with the church where I will be an intern for the next two years – First Presbyterian Church, Dallas. The music directors at "First Pres" are Ken and Mary-Jane Cooper. Ken directs the adult choir (Chancel Choir) while Mary-Jane does children's musical programmes (they of course both do a whole lot more than that, but that's an easy way of summing it up). We connected with the two of them mid-week and planned to go for lunch on Saturday. Mary-Jane picked us up in front of the Perkins Chapel (a handy pick-up spot since it's so recognizable) and took us to meet Ken at the church.

We drove into the older downtown area of Dallas and Mary-Jane pointed out sights to us, finishing as we rounded a corner by saying "and there's the church". At first I couldn't see it – all I saw was a neo-classical palace filling up my entire view. Oh, wait - that's the church.

Ken met us in his office and we all went on a tour of the building. The church has been built up over the course of several renovations and can be divided into distinct sections – it's a bit of a maze inside. I tried not to get overwhelmed as Ken showed us room after room of offices, meeting rooms, children's resources, Sunday School classrooms, storage rooms of props, storage rooms for craft materials, and listed off a seemingly endless number of staff members. It seemed there was a grand piano in every other room. The sanctuary is gorgeous and has a very nice acoustic. It seats around a thousand people between the main floor and a large balcony. The chancel area is beautiful and the space feels like a nice mix between contemporary and modern.

I tried to keep reminding myself "don't worry, this place is huge, but you're only in charge of a very small piece of it." David and I both agreed later, however, that the church has a huge amount of resources, yes, but they are using every scrap of what they have. All their rooms are hopping all the time with community groups, adult learning classes, and community outreach efforts. In their sister building, the Stewpot, the church runs a kitchen for the homeless that serves three meals a day, seven days a week, feeding seven hundred people per sitting.

We had a nice lunch that was a chance to get to know Ken and Mary Jane a little. They are both very busy people who clearly love the church. The area is very interesting – it is a largely abandoned area known as the "older" part of downtown, but the oldest buildings can't be more than a hundred years old and most look brand new. Development has moved on in favour of another area, so these blocks – which have the physical look of a dense downtown core – were still and empty on a Saturday afternoon. It's a neat feature of First Pres that the church elders did not elect to move out to the suburbs when the area changed, but stayed here to minister to the poor and inner-city citizens in the area – though most of the congregants do come in from said suburbs.

After lunch, Mary Jane took David home, sending him with a bunch of items that kind choir members (who hadn't even met us yet!) donated to help us get set up here. Ken and I drove out to Waxahachie, Texas – a place I can honestly say I never dreamed I'd find myself in this life. We drove in his 1994 Mazda Miata (who knew?) to go visit the youth group at their yearly weekend planning retreat (!) I was pretty amazed by the organization of the group and the smart, quick, democratic way they all chose their year's activities together. Ken introduced me to the group, which numbers about forty – and apparently most of them will be wanting to join the youth choir, which I will lead. Ken was very interested that I had brought some music down with me (Canadian content!) and has already slotted all of my choices into the choir's schedule, at times in place of pieces he had planned.

The next morning, David and I attended the service at First Pres – my first and last chance to be a congregation member. It was a nice service and we both agreed we liked the sermon by the minister, Joe Clifford – however, it's interesting to start to see the differences in cultural assumptions between Toronto and Dallas. He spoke very intelligently on issues concerning the increasing multiculturalism in Dallas – specifically, that people from so-called "minority groups" may outnumber Caucasians in the near future, and how "we" fret about what that will be like. Well – they should come hang out in Toronto and we'll all go for shwarma!

Ken gave me a tour of my office (last year I shared with the custodian; this year I share with the choir robes) and then took David and me around for a tour of various storage rooms where we could take things we needed for our apartment! We got a bedside table and bookcase, and Ken even lent David his bike which he doesn't use anymore for while we're here. They are being so kind to us. I also already have a job for while Ken is away for the next two weeks – to set up communion at the early chapel service. The chapel, by the way, is practically a whole other building and has its own organ and grand piano. Gorgeous.

The next Wednesday I attended my first Chancel Choir rehearsal, which is part of my job. I'm looking forward to being a part of the group. We are doing a beautiful Bob Chilcott piece called "We Will Walk Softly" (I love Bob Chilcott. Seriously.) We are also doing "Worthy to be Praised", which I did in BCC years ago, and it made me miss Linda and choir. A woman named Joanne is substituting while Ken and Mary Jane are away (to visit the Taizé community – wow!) and she adjourned the practice early because she and some choristers wanted to go watch the presidential debates. It's going to be very interesting being down here for the upcoming election!

Now I'm really looking forward to planning the first Youth Choir rehearsals. I hope they like me. :) In other related news, I recently finally heard the recording I did with my Royal York Road United Church junior choir and youth band of John Bell's "Don't Be Afraid" – they sound great, and I'm so proud of them!

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