Racial Justice Resources

‘A virtual choir of international peacemakers’

38-voice global choir one of several ways Peacemaking Program is virtually bringing the global community together

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

A choir of 38 International Peacemakers was gathered by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program to share a rendition of the hymn “This is My Song.” (Screen shot)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Beth Mueller got a note from a man who saw the virtual choir of international peacemakers video she created for the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and had a question.

“He wanted to know how we got all those people from around the world to sing at the same time on Zoom,” Mueller said, laughing.

It’s not quite that easy, but all the more rewarding.

Mueller, Worship Arts Director at Shepherd of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, learned the painstaking task of assembling virtual choir videos out of necessity. As in churches across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic had put all worship online for Shepherd, but the members of the choir still wanted to join their voices in song.

Beth Mueller

Mueller shared one of her virtual choir videos with Carl Horton, coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, and he had an idea: what if they gathered a group of the program’s previous International Peacemakers, participants in its travel-study seminars and other trips, and others associated with the program to create a “virtual choir of international peacemakers,” as Horton put it.

By the time they arrived at the idea, with a release before Pentecost as their goal, Mueller had created several of these pieces, which have a fairly complicated production process. Anyone who has tried to sing “Happy Birthday” at a virtual birthday party knows that a bunch of people singing at once on a Zoom call sounds horrendous. It takes a bit more work to make all those voices come together as beautifully online as they do in person.

WATCH: “This is My Song” by a virtual choir of international peacemakers

The actual process starts with singers recording themselves singing while listening to a sample track. That way, everyone is on the same tempo and the recordings and videos can be synchronized. Then singers send their video to Mueller, who separates the video and audio tracks. She sends the audio to Lucy Jordan, a member of the church band, who puts together a satisfying blend of voices — “I can ask her to make it sound like we’re in a cathedral, and she does it,” Mueller says — and she assembles the video. Then they sync the two together.

“It takes about 40 to 50 hours each, beginning to end,” Mueller said of the videos.

And that’s with everyone in the same state and city. Pulling together an international ensemble raised the degree of difficulty from the standpoints of language, technology and other factors.

The hymn they chose was “This is My Song,” a hymn of peace set to the Jean Sibelius work “Finlandia.” Mueller had already found that hymns were easier to do than choral arrangements for these projects, so they went with the version in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “Glory to God” hymnal — it’s No. 340.

Horton emailed participants large attachments, including music for every vocal part plus a score with them all together and a PDF of the hymnal version, directions for recording the video, and the sample track to sing to. Horton said he was worried the PC(USA) email system wouldn’t let him send such a large message. All singers were asked to record a video of themselves singing the melody, and singers who were capable of singing harmony were asked to record a track singing their vocal part — soprano, alto, tenor or bass — as well.

It worked, and within a few days, singers were sending their videos to a Dropbox folder. Some also used WhatsApp, simple texts and other methods for sending the videos in.

Mueller opted to create a “build” version of the hymn, starting with a few singers in the first verse building to all 38 singers.

“That way, we could highlight all the different voices and accents we had,” Mueller said.

The “This is My Song” video, which can be downloaded for use in virtual church services, started as a result of and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But it ended up being released just as the United States was beginning a national reckoning with systemic racism in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.

“Part of the reason Carl and I did it was this is such a weird moment in history and in the world, and to be able to offer something that speaks to peace and unity, to offer something tangible, felt like a really important thing to do,” Mueller said. “The song is simple and beautiful … and I choke up every time I play it, and I spent 50 hours making the thing.

“It’s incredibly moving to have voices from all over the world singing a song of peace. It is really a powerful message: all the voices from all these places speaking to peace and unity in God.”

Another virtual gathering

While the video was made for Pentecost, Horton sees it being part of the upcoming Season of Peace, Sept. 6 through Oct. 4, culminating with the Peace & Global Witness Offering, taken on World Communion Sunday Oct. 4. That season usually includes visits from the Peacemaking Program’s International Peacemakers, who come to the United States from around the world to travel around the country to churches, mid councils (synods and presbyteries) and educational and community institutions to talk about their work.

But travel has been radically altered by the pandemic. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national staff is on a travel ban for the remainder of 2020. And even if that was not the case, international travel is extremely difficult. Horton said mid councils and congregations were telling him they didn’t think they were in a place to welcome peacemakers this year.

So, instead of Peacemakers fanning out across the country, the Peacemaking program is beginning to plan two weeks of presentations, panels, and other online programming featuring veterans of the International Peacemakers program along with PC(USA) mission co-workers and other guests. Horton says plans are at a stay-tuned stage right now, but he is looking forward to putting together discussions focusing a variety of issues with voices from around the world. It will just be a different way of joining in harmony.

The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Give to the Peace & Global Witness Offering to continue the valuable ministry of the Peacemaking Program. 

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