I disliked Sunday School meetings when I was a child. In the humid region of northern Illinois, Sunday mornings in the chapel were either warm and sleepy or chilly and invigorating—not conducive to my being reverent in the chapel. Not only did I fidget and get quietly reprimanded by my father, I also couldn’t understand what the speakers were saying or what the people were singing.
While the chorister stood before the congregation, her arms swinging to the beat enthusiastically and her face radiant, I wanted to slip out into the foyer. Through the open windows I heard birds singing, bees humming, and the world of nature calling.
“Dad,” I pleaded once, “why can’t I go outside?” He held his work-calloused hand in a silent gesture for me to hush. I sank down in the bench, kicking the underside of the pew in front of me. Another well-worked hand gently and firmly grasped my knee. I was tired of sitting there.
The chorister, Sister Johnson * , was a friendly, outgoing woman, and she always laughed heartily and greeted ward members enthusiastically. When she stood before the congregation, her face shone, her cheeks as pink as young apples. Lifting her arms high, she raised her clear, exuberant voice as the organ’s first strains were released into the air. With every song she sang, her voice scooped up and slid down with the cadence of the song. To my young ears, she was singing “country” music.
“She changes the songs,” I whispered to my dad. “They’re not supposed to sound like that.” My father just leaned over and told me to be still.
“C’mon!” Sister Johnson sometimes called out, smiling broadly. “This is a song of praise and thanksgiving. Sing unto the Lord!”
Sister Johnson sat in the choir seat next to the organ, her face beaming as she listened to the speakers. She closed her eyes during the sacrament service, often tilting her face upward, as though she felt a warming shaft of sunlight from above. It irritated me that she was so cheerful, in contrast to my boredom and unhappiness.
“The songs she chooses are so old-fashioned,” I complained to my father. He wasn’t listening to me. I sulked and glared at Sister Johnson.
As I grew older, I dreaded singing “Before Thee, Lord, I Bow My Head.” Sister Johnson’s voice often scooped and slid more than usual while she sang that hymn. And when she sang “Welcome, Welcome, Sabbath Morning,” I slumped in my seat, miserable and uncomfortable.
Yet I remember the congregation looking up at her, their different voices combining into one sound of strength. The farmers sang, their voices soft and hesitant. The Polish couple who had fled Hitler’s invasion of Europe sang robustly, their words thickly accented with their mother tongue. The sister who took voice lessons filled the air with her vibrato, hitting the high notes when no one else could. My mother confidently sang a harmony, trusting her ear since she couldn’t read music. In fact, most of the people in the congregation couldn’t read music. Some couldn’t read at all. All of them could sing, though, and sing they would.
“We just sing the same songs over and over again,” I grumbled to my mother. She looked at me, puzzled. Nevertheless I decided to sing to avoid the questioning gaze my father always gave me when I remained silent during the singing.
I moved away when I turned eighteen and rarely ventured back after marrying. My husband was in the military, and we moved many times. I grew into sisterhood, wifehood, and motherhood. With one, two, three, then four young children beside me, I continued to feel that sacrament meetings dragged on.
Then one wretched night, I grappled for my soul. In the darkness and stillness of the night, alone, I recognized the terrific weight of my attitudes and sins and cried in anguish. Despairing and feeling hopeless, I knew no comfort or peace in those long, tearful hours. I slumped into bed; sleep and peace still eluded me.
In the heavy, oppressive silence, I went to the piano in my living room and took down the hymnal. As I sat at the piano, my throat constricted, and my eyes welled with tears. With my trembling fingers on the keys, I hummed the tune. No words could form in my mouth at that moment. I lifted my head toward the ceiling and let the joy of the hymn fill my overwhelmed soul and body. I was startled by the memory of Sister Johnson’s voice scooping and sliding to the words of “Before Thee, Lord, I Bow My Head.” I listened, remembering the words, remembering her jubilant expression. Then I understood—joy. Joy in hearing and singing the hymns. Joy in the healing that comes with repentance and forgiveness expressed in a rejoicing hymn. Stumbling through the music, I let sobs escape me and reached for a couch pillow to muffle the sound. This moment was between me, the Lord, and Sister Johnson, wherever she was that night.
When the opportunity came some months ago, I substituted for the chorister in our ward. As I sat next to the organ, feeling comfort in its proximity, I looked out across the congregation and thought of the hymns we were going to sing. I knew them well. In fact, I didn’t need the hymnal. But when I stood before the congregation, my nervousness threatened to overtake my ability to sing. I glanced over my shoulder at the organist and suddenly thought of Sister Johnson—her face beaming, her arms raised, and singing “country.” Then, I smiled and raised my arms and sang with all my heart and soul—just like her.