In 2001, my very close friends Diana and Mark gathered with a few others at Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans to sing gospel music together. After a few weeks I joined them. The choir met at Loyola University music department. There were probably seven or eight people at that time and, Praise the Lord, I did not have to audition. My voice was adequate, not well-trained, but had a lot of heart. I had taken voice lessons from a very accomplished soprano a decade earlier. I was directed to the soprano section which included two or three other women on a good night. I never missed choir rehearsal in spite of the fact that I drove the farthest for rehearsal. One Thursday night, my biggest fear was realized. I was the only soprano present. I was the soprano section. My friends knew how horrified I was and Mark, who sang tenor with the New Orleans Opera, stood up with me and sang the soprano part. This generosity was classically Mark. He was my best male friend in life.

My friend, Mark, is by my side. As the disease progressed, choir members strategically stood around me in case I lost my balance.

Each week a few new members trickled into rehearsal. Always dressed beautifully and with perfectly manicured nails so long that they curled, Thetius stood on my left side and had a booming soprano voice that was obviously trained since childhood in an African-American church choir. Initially, as I was trying to loosen my throat and register a few notes, I would look toward Thetius for guidance. I asked her to direct my pitch if I were sharp or flat and she would point her finger up or down. It felt very comforting to see those nails pointed in the direction where I needed to correct. After the first rehearsal with sister Thetius, I thanked her profusely. She said to me, “girl, we all gots to help each other!” I remember tears pouring down my face as we were singing, and I knew that I was in the right place.

After a few months, it was recommended that we schedule an actual gig. The more seasoned choir members new that this was the surest way to come together as a choir.  With no further ado our first singing engagement was scheduled–September 12, 2001! After the bombing of the World Trade Center on the previous day, we wondered whether the date should be postponed. It became very clear very quickly that it was no accident. As we sang in the small chapel in Trinity Church where the choir had originated, the response overwhelmingly clarified our mission of solidarity among differences. For the next five years, I participated in Shades of Praise New Orleans Interracial Interfaith Gospel Choir.

Our choir performed at churches, synagogues, jazz festival, political events, and St. Louis Cathedral just to name a few venues. Some of the voices individually were breathtaking, but all of the voices collectively were deeply moving. We recorded a number of CDs. Wherever our unifying and joyful message was needed, we were there. In 2003, one of the organizers from the choir got an invitation for us to go on tour in Ireland. It was an opportunity to spread our message of solidarity within a country so divided by sectarianism. We flew to Dublin the exact night that US troops were entering Afghanistan. I remember watching the television in the Dublin airport describing the military maneuvers. Many of us were horrified; this was the polar opposite of our mission, bringing people together in harmony. From Dublin, we rode on a tour bus to Omagh, a city in Northern Ireland where a car bombing had taken place and killed many men women and children on August 15, 1998. Sectarianism had emotionally devastated this town. We lived in private homes in the community and heard the heartbreaking stories. Netflix has the story of Omagh. The documentary cannot capture what we experienced bonding intimately with this community.

After the car bombing, a high school choir had come together of catholic and protestant adolescents. This was very unusual as the students were educated separately and essentially lived parallel lives. The Duchess of Abercorn sponsored the choir and their courageous mission of peace and reconciliation was shared by Shades of Praise. Our whole experience in Ireland was life changing–our time in Omagh the most profoundly so. We toured the town, spoke about racism and sectarianism, broke bread with the families, performed in both of their churches, and witnessed the broken pavement where the car bomb exploded.

As we swiftly jogged to the high school for our practice with the choir, for the first time I began to show a visible limp. I remember walking with Mark on one side of me and Diana on the other side. The support from my friends and my choir was exactly what I needed at that moment. We continued to perform throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We went to the home of the president of Northern Ireland Duke and Duchess of Abercorn as well as many other historic places. We ended week with a very powerful performance at an old church in Dublin. Everybody in the church young and old, well and disabled brought themselves to standing position and held hands. It was a moving way to end the most profound adventure of my life.

I returned from Ireland to complete the medical testing which resulted in a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. 2003 was a very tumultuous yet profound year that would change my life forever.

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