On a Song and a Prayer

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Suzzy Roche was out walking her dog. The sun shone brightly over New York City in a clear, perfectly blue sky. Thoughts tumbled through her mind. Her and her sister Maggie's new album Zero Church would be released today. After months of collecting and listening and writing and singing, it was finally ready.

Then Suzzy turned the corner onto 9th Avenue and watched in horror as the planes crashed into the World Trade Center.

In the aftermath of the tragedy in New York, Washington, D.C., and western Pennsylvania, amid immense grief and new vulnerability, Maggie and Suzzy (her name rhymes with "fuzzy") realized their collection of prayers set to music needed one more contribution. "I found myself writing my own prayer and humbly adding it to the collection," recalls Suzzy on her Web site. "When we began our search for prayers, I wasn't sure what we were doing. Now I understand—something real about compassion, kindness, and tolerance. This is one of those rare projects that comes along and defies categorization."

Maggie and Suzzy Roche, two thirds of the sister trio The Roches, attended the Institute for the Arts and Civic Dialogue (IACD) at Harvard University several summers ago. Founded by actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, the institute focuses on artistic collaboration while exploring issues of race, identity, diversity, and community. It boils down to this: Projects begun at the institute start with a broad idea like "Let's collect prayers" and proceed through collaboration with the folks next door. In the case of Zero Church (the title is from the institute's actual Cambridge address), Maggie and Suzzy talked with fellow IACD artists, as well as other new and old friends—a Vietnam vet, gay and lesbian activists, a former slave from Sudan, an AIDS patient, and "a playful, wheel-chaired-wandering, urban Buddhist yogi"—and asked them about their thoughts and feelings regarding prayers. The sisters worked with anyone willing to share a prayer with them, then wrote music for the prayers.

"There's long been a tradition of setting prayers to music," says Suzzy. "Most of it, however, is done within a religious context. The Zero Church prayers come from individuals of all different backgrounds and experience. Each prayer is a single life with an important and unique story—and yet they weave together to make one universal expression. I was scared by the responsibility we had, but in the end there was something greater than us at work. It was as if the music was already there and we had only to listen deeply to hear it." And until I listened deeply, I didn't hear the songs either.

In fact, the first time I listened to Zero Church, I ran from the room in exasperation and disappointment. The background vocals sounded like something scraped off the underbelly of the Titanic soundtrack—synthesized and ethereal and vaguely reminiscent of Mannheim Steamroller. Each song seemed agonizingly slow; the lyrics disappeared behind both the tempo and stylistic peculiarity. I waited with expectation as each track played, hoping, yearning, aching for the manipulated earnestness to change, to give way to anything else: rock, blues, acoustic simplicity, carnival polka.

Then a song began with a lone voice, with a clear gospel ache, and continued that way. My spine straightened and my ears perked up. Finally! How refreshing! I settled into "Teach Me, O Lord" and closed my eyes, letting the rise and fall of this woman's pleading for guidance, for improvement, for a divine overhaul, envelop me. My eyes flew open, though, when the background alto and soprano joined in with the same angelic reverberation they'd had on previous tracks. I turned the CD player off and fled my apartment.

I RETURNED TO Zero Church a second time, determined to give it another go, and realized quickly that I'd need to distract myself if I was going to get through the entire album. I pulled the liner notes out of the jewel case. As I turned each page and read the stories and quotes behind the poems, reflections, and prayers included in the collection, I began to understand Zero Church. The stories unfolded and I discovered kindred and wandering folk underneath the words: people facing uncertainty and a broken world, people reaching for strength, craving comfort, and nursing unexpected wounds. The songs on the album prove meditative, probing, and soothing all at once; they comfort without slipping into naivetŽ.

My breakthrough moment with Zero Church came with "Allende." Though one of my least favorite pieces as far as its drudge-like tempo and repetitive melody, author Ruben Martinez transforms an old Spanish saying, allende la mar (across the ocean), a phrase "heavy with the symbolism of a colonial power seeking fortune in the Americas," to allende el rio (across the river) "for Mexican migrants who see their future on the northern side of the Rio Grande." As Martinez explains, "There are countless obstacles on the migrants' path (border patrol, poor wages, discrimination), but their will to overcome drives them forward anyway." These men and women and children don't just hope for sweet relief and redemption, they carve their emancipation out of hazardous days, out of constant and ever-changing obstacles and betrayals.

In the year since the Sept. 11 attacks and the ongoing violence of the "war on terrorism," may we strive—in the midst of our grief and uncertainty—to hold on to a belief that a better world is possible. In the face of such events, we can hope with sweat and callused hands, "allende, allende, allende."

Beth Isaacson, a former editorial assistant at Sojourners, lives and writes in Washington, D.C.

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