Good morning. My name is Grace Bitterman, and I’ve been attending St. Thomas’ for all of my 18 years. Over the course of my time here, I’ve been baptised, attended the nursery school, been an active member of the youth group, attended sunday school, been confirmed, served as a youth representative on the vestry, and sung in the choir. I sang for 10 years as a chorister, and I just completed my second year as an adult choir member.
Through coming to church an hour early each Sunday to rehearse, I’ve gotten to see a lot of the work that goes into each service. I’ve seen the altar guild setting up, the readers preparing, the acolytes robing, and the ushers handing out leaflets. In relation to this morning’s gospel, I believe that some of our most important work occurs on the Sabbath day, and I’m so grateful for all of the effort that goes into making St. Thomas’ services so meaningful.
Over my time in the choir, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a total of five different choir directors, but I can really only remember details about the most recent three. They are Cindy Dedakis, who introduced us to the Royal School of Church Music, Derrick Goff, who really helped me individually improve, and Michael Smith, who has truly led by example and along with the rest of the choir, has made me and the other high schoolers feel welcome, even as the youngest members.
The church has supported our chorister program in so many ways, and some of my most rewarding experiences have been through travelling with the choir. Over my years here, we’ve sung in services at St. James, Madison Ave. in New York City, St. Alban’s, in Washington, D.C., and many other churches in places such as Buffalo, New York, State College, Pennsylvania, Ridgefield, Connecticut, and Princeton, New Jersey. I had phenomenal musical experiences in all of these places, along with opportunities to meet new people and bond with our choir.
But my most profound experience was one I had six years ago at the week-long Royal School of Church Music Rhode Island course. I found myself sitting in a room full of people I had never met. I had never heard the song we were about to sing, and I had never even glanced at the sheet music. As a twelve-year-old treble, I sat among Anglican choral celebrities in Newport, Rhode Island. I slipped in and out of this reality, losing myself in the beautiful paintings and golden trim on the ceiling. Our rehearsal space originated as the dining room of the historic Newport “cottage,” Ochre Court, which sits along the Cliff Walk and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. The island curves around, so in the distance, another shore cuts into the otherwise endless water. Around me, everyone began to sing, so I snapped back out of my trance to sight-read the music: “Hark, I hear the harps eternal Ringing on the farther shore, As I near those swollen waters, With their deep and solemn roar.” Then, we plunged into the chorus with a resounding “Hallelujah!” At that point, I had participated in the choir here for six years, and I really only did it because I wanted to see my friends each week. But, that day, in that room, with those people, everything changed.
Outside, a passerby wandered the Cliff Walk alone, in search of God. She planned to marry her fiancé the next day and needed relief from her anxiety. She strolled soundlessly, then heard angels singing, “…Souls have crossed before me, saintly, To that land of perfect rest; And I hear them singing faintly In the mansions of the blest.” She told our head proctor that in that instant, she knew God had heard her call. That stranger’s story left me in awe.
I will never forget the way I felt when my voice locked in with the hundred others in the room. It made me realize that I am a part of something much bigger than myself. I made up only a small portion of that choir, and I make up an infinitely smaller portion of the universe. But that day, we created a ripple in the ocean. We not only touched each other’s souls, we also touched someone else’s. We reached through the Ochre Court windows and made it to the farther shore. I will never recreate that moment, but I can always try. I do every day. Now I know why I sing. It gives people hope, and it makes them feel things. And I help create it. Maybe that’s why I am here. Maybe that “insignificant significance” is the biggest contribution I will ever get to make to this world. Honestly, that would be enough.
And that’s why I’ve chosen to continue practicing the Episcopal faith, and studying at the University of the South, more commonly known as Sewanee, which is the only Episcopal college in the country. There, I will continue singing in the University Choir at their All Saints’ Chapel, and I’ve been lucky enough to receive a music scholarship, which Michael Smith so kindly helped me audition for only a few short months after he began working here. They say it takes a village, and my village was St. Thomas’ Church; I received letters of recommendation from our former associate rector, Dan Stroud, who attended Sewanee, and also from Mr. William Rue, a member of the Board of Regents, who was introduced to me by Bill and Jan Lutz. At All Saints’, there is a Eucharist each Sunday, an Evensong each month, and several concerts throughout the year. But, I must say, I’m most looking forward to the Lessons and Carols services, which attract about 3000 people to campus each year.
I’d like to thank the St. Thomas’ community for providing me with so many mentors, role models, and opportunities over the years, which have truly shaped who I hope to become, and for that I am forever grateful. Amen.