"9/11 After 15 Years: A Reflection" at the New York Society for Ethical Culture

It was an early Sunday morning—the city hadn’t totally woken up yet. As I got out of the subway station at Columbus Circle, I spotted some morning joggers--street traffic was still light. I walked down Broadway until I reached West 64th Street and I made a right. I sauntered along until I reached a sign bearing the words "Ethical Platform" at the very top, and in smaller white letters an invitation to step inside this Sunday morning and I knew I had reached my destination: The New York Society For Ethical Culture. This was the place Peace of Heart Choir would be singing on this morning as part of a collaboration between the two groups marking the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 as part of a program entitled "9/11: 15 Years Later, A Reflection".  For those not familiar with The New York Society For Ethical Culture, it is a humanist community dedicated to ethics, social justice, and education since 1876. Their mission is to celebrate life’s joys, support each other through life’s crises, and work to make the world a better place.  One of our Peace of Heart Choir members, Larry, is a member of The New York Society of Ethical Culture. 

As I reached the front steps, I spotted my fellow choir member Maryann. We chatted a bit and we walked through the front door and found our Peace of Heart Choir banner in the hallway. We made our way into the concert hall where Rene was warming us up and fine tuning elements of our repertoire. It is a grand concert hall indeed--the landmarked space, one of the few NYC buildings constructed in the Art Noveau style features palatial ceilings and magnificent arches. We took the stage—a good-sized stage featuring a Steinway and Sons piano, a lectern to the center and a table with a vase of flowers on the left hand side. We sounded lovely in this breathtaking space with its marvelous acoustics.

After running through our morning’s repertoire, we waited in the numbered benches to the side of the stage. The program began with pianist David Garcia's piano renditions of   9/11 tribute songs, “In Memoriam”, “All They Wanted To Say” and most notably, an absolutely gorgeous piano rendition of the classic “Imagine”, by one of Garcia’s favorite composers, John Lennon. One of Peace of Heart Choir’s favorites as well, we performed “Imagine” in one of our fall concerts a few seasons back. Garcia noted that while he was not here on 9/11, what always stood out to him in people’s accounts was that amidst the negative, tragic elements, there was a ray of hope in people uniting together and getting stronger through uniting together.

One of the leaders of The New York Society of Ethical Culture, Dr. Anne Klaeysen, welcomed Peace of Heart Choir to the stage. She said that one of their members, Larry, had spoken often of the group he enjoyed singing with so much--Peace of Heart Choir-- and suggested that Peace of Heart Choir sing here and Dr. Klaeysen said that she readily agreed. So the time had come. Peace of Heart Choir took the stage.

It was time to sing. Rene gave us the nod and we lifted our music folders from our sides, opened them, and we began our first set with our first song selected for this occasion, the reflective Appalachian folk tune, a glorious a cappella “Bright Morning Star”. We had performed this song many times before and yet there was something different this time. In this venue on this occasion, I felt an extra sense of solemnity, of emotion. During the song, the room was so silent; you could hear a pin drop. When we reached the end, we held our stances and did not move a muscle as Rene had instructed which was extremely effective.  And then as we moved from our fixed stances, the very appreciative applause began. We continued with our next song selected for this occasion: the Hebrew celebratory song, “Bashana  Haba’ah” brilliantly featuring Amanda on clarinet and Marv on accordion. “Bashana Haba’ah” lived up to its description in the program: ‘offering moments of simple joy'. This lively song did offer moments of simple joy—I felt a sense of joy and freedom as I sang, I felt that sense of joy in other choir members, and I knew the audience felt that joy as well.  

At this point, Dr. Klaeysen took the stage again and she said something very lovely--that it made her feel better hearing us sing.  This is definitely one of the reasons I love singing with the choir—making our audience happy. She then led a reflection on 9/11 and invited two young leaders at The New York Society For Ethical Culture to speak. One of the young leaders, a young man who is in a new class for citizenship, was the first to speak. The second speaker, a young woman who was only a toddler during 9/11 spoke of the legacy of the post-9/11 world in which she grew up—this world of tighter controls that is the only world she has ever known. Most importantly, she expressed her hope for peace and her desire for the stabilization of nations necessary to ensure that peace will one day come.

At this point, Dr. Klaeysen welcomed us back to the stage and invited us to talk about the choir and our mission. Gary spoke from the heart in introducing Peace Of Heart Choir and our mission. With a warm smile on his face, he even invited members of the audience to audition for our choir next season if they had Thursday evenings free. We had two more songs selected for this occasion. Our second set was now about to begin. Our voices soared in a sense of community on our one of our core songs, the Jim Papoulis anthem for our children, an a cappella “Give Us Hope”. This song spoke beautifully to one of the main themes of this day and many of the speeches: hope. Our last song was Matisyahu’s call for peace in our troubled world, “One Day” featuring lovely solos by Gwyn and Gary and splendid instrumental accompaniment featuring Rene on piano and Brian on guitar.  It was a truly beautiful way to end our program for the day. Dr. Klaeysen agreed. In Dr. Klaeysen’s closing comments,  she thanked us for singing and said of our songs, “We will be adding them to our repertoire.” I was so thankful for their invitation for us to perform here and I thought to myself that would be nice. We had collaborated with the New York Society of Ethical Culture on the community songs, “I’ve Got Peace Like A River” and “A Song of Peace”. This is such a lovely, wonderful place and a future collaboration would be delightful. 

At one point, Dr. Anne Klaeysen cited one of my favorite quotes by Martin Luther King Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In her closing comments, she also said something very important, “Until everyone feels they are economically stable and has a living wage, that they can put food on their table, have a roof over their head, and have healthcare around the world—only then will we have peace.” (Incidentally, you can see the words “LIVING WAGE FOR ALL” on The New York Society for Ethical Culture’s latest banner so all passersby can see their public declaration of support for a living wage. They were among the first congregations to strike alongside fast-food workers and join the “Fight for $15 & a Union”. Since it began almost five years ago, this movement, started in New York City has spread to 300 cities on six continents.)

Dr. Klaeysen stressed that peace is quite a challenge but pointed out that there was a lot that each one of us can do until then in helping each other from not losing hope and keeping peace in our hearts.  She sent us back out into the world with this directive: “Let each of us be the voices to bring peace into the world.” And so we answered that directive by gathering together later in Central Park for a picnic and for reflection. Rene led us in song as we performed our encore, “Let There Be Peace On Earth” and sing-alongs such as “This Land Is Your Land” and “This Little Light of Mine”.  As we sang  "Let There Be Peace on Earth" and the other sing-alongs, I felt such a sense of community, of unity, of hope for the future. It was truly a special day of friendship and song that I will never forget. We each had spread that ray of hope that Dr. Klaeysen had alluded to earlier in her speech —each of us had let our little light shine in our corner of the world.

In Harmony,
Carrie Wesolowski,  Alto 1