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Presbyterian Association of Musicians makes a joyful noise during its Worship & Music Conference

PAM is gathering at Montreat Conference Center for a week of studying, building community and making music

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

MONTREAT, North Carolina — “We’re so glad you’re here. We’ve been waiting for you for three years,” Karrie Rushing, co-director of the Presbyterian Association of MusiciansWorship & Music Conference, told the 700 or so people gathered for opening worship Sunday inside Anderson Auditorium at Montreat Conference Center.

“Thirst No More” is the theme for the conference, PAM’s first in-person offering since the pandemic began. With next week’s similar offering and an online component offered that same week, the conferences will draw at least 1,450 attendees.

PAM Worship & Music Conference Co-Directors Phillip Morgan and Karrie Rushing welcome conference-goers to worship Sunday evening in Anderson Auditorium at Montreat Conference Center. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia, the conference preacher, is using John 4:1-14 as a scriptural basis. The Rev. Kendra Buckwalter Smith is serving as conference liturgist and helped lead opening worship, which — as one might expect from a large gathering of musicians and worship leaders — featured outstanding and uplifting singing and musicianship. During two hymns, the congregation sang a cappella after being started off on the right note.

During her two-part sermon Sunday, Kwong Abazia, the Vice-Moderator of the 221st General Assembly (2014) who founded Courageous Spaces, which invites people to co-create spaces for disruption, transformation and change, told the story of a young parishioner who came to worship one Sunday “red-faced and sobbing.” The service went on around her, her sobs audible from time to time. The next Sunday went like the previous Sunday for this woman. By the third and fourth week, her friends gathered around her but asked little of their distraught friend, who clearly wanted to be left alone in her pain.

The Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia sprinkles water on and near those gathered for worship Sunday at PAM’s Worship & Music Conference. (Photo by Rich Copley)

By the fifth week, the woman returned to church full of life. She hugged people when it came time to pass the peace. She sang hymns with renewed passion and talked with nearly everyone during coffee fellowship.

“I wanted to ask her about those four weeks. She didn’t seem afraid to let others see her in her vulnerable position,” Kwong Abazia said. “She said, ‘I knew I could come to church when I didn’t feel like it. I knew everybody’s faith would carry me when I didn’t believe it myself.’”

A “powerful piece” of the woman’s testimony “witnesses to the worshipful work of those around her, the healing power of the gathered community,” Kwong Abazia said. “We were part of releasing her from the lament that had captured her. The fullness of God compelled it all. And so, we lean in, eagerly soaking in the liturgy as it washes over us.”

“Together,” she said, “we worship God in full complexity, lament and joy.”

More than 700 people are attending the first week of PAM’s Worship & Music Conference, which on Sunday included glorious singing in Anderson Auditorium. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Smith noted the week’s text — Jesus and the Woman of Samaria — “is rooted in a conversation, in an unexpected encounter.” She invited those in worship to enter into their own conversations. “Find a friend or a reasonably friendly-looking stranger” to discuss how God is showing up in unexpected encounters, Smith told the large crowd, which they readily did.

“Who you are and why you are called is the central ingredient of our worship together,” Kwong Abazia said, reading a portion of “The Sound of the Genuine,” the baccalaureate address Dr. Howard Thurman delivered at Spelman College in Atlanta on May 4, 1980.

Brass players added their gifts to the hymns offered up Sunday during worship at PAM’s Worship & Music Conference. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“You are the only you that has ever lived; your idiom is the only idiom of its kind in all existence and if you cannot hear the sound of the genuine in you, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls,” Thurman told graduates.

“There is in you something that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself and sometimes there is so much traffic going on in your minds, so many different kinds of signals, so many vast impulses floating through your organism that go back thousands of generations, long before you were even a thought in the mind of Creation, and you are buffeted by these, and in the midst of all this you have got to find out what your name is. Who are you? How does the sound of the genuine come through to you?

“The sound of the genuine is flowing through you. Don’t be deceived and thrown off by all the noises that are a part even of your dreams, your ambitions, so that you don’t hear the sound of the genuine in you, because that is the only true guide that you will ever have, and if you don’t have that you don’t have a thing.”

PAM’s Worship & Music Conference continues all week, and Presbyterian News Service will present daily reports, including digital clips. Next week’s version, which will be identical to this week’s, includes an online component. Learn more here.

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