Singers Extend Range Beyond Their Own Faith Tradition

Elizabeth Birger is Jewish, but she is also a professional musician with a love for all kinds of religious works, which is how she ended up singing with a Christian church choir in Wichita some years back. At one point there she was asked to prepare kids to sing in an upcoming worship service.

The church’s music leader asked her to have the children sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”

“I said, ‘Great. How does that go?’” Birger told me. The leader, sort of rolling her eyes, said that if she didn’t know that, just do “Jesus Loves Me.”

Birger: “I said, ‘Great. How does that go?’”

Sometimes there can be small bumps in the road when musicians from one faith tradition provide music for worship in another tradition. And that crossover happens much more frequently than you might imagine in the Kansas City area.

Three examples:

Each traveled a different path to engage in this interfaith work, but each has been delighted with the experience.

“Every place I’ve sung,” says Krusemark, “if the worship is authentic, it strikes a chord with my beliefs. I’ve never felt uncomfortable in any religious setting.” In addition to singing for Jewish services, he’s taught music at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth for about 40 years, where he leads music for Catholic Masses, and has directed the choir of Bethany Lutheran Church in Overland Park for about 20 years.

Birger, daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants who came to Kansas City in the 1970s, grew up at Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Kansas City. She says she’s sung and played for so many Christian worship services that “my best friend calls me the most Christian Jew she knows.”

Every time she applies for a music job in a church, she tells the person considering hiring her this: “I need you to know upfront that I don’t take Communion and that I have my faith.”

If she thinks her being Jewish might offend any Christian in a congregation at which she might work, she declines the job.

At the beginning of her career, she says, some of the elements of Christian theology gave her pause because she was singing about it in public even though it wasn’t her theology.

“Part of it is a walk of faith for me,” she explains. “But the bigger part of why I’m there is to touch somebody else. Sometimes I have to put my spiritual journey on hold because this is a performance. And as much as I would like to say that it’s not, it must be, it just must be. My prayer for every time I sing is that someone gets something out of it. It’s not about me at that moment.”

Because of her performance schedule now, she rarely gets to attend Jewish services, but nourishes her own faith through lots of reading and deep conversations with friends of different traditions.

For Felix Parish, circumstances are intriguing and perhaps unique. He grew up as female in a Christian congregation in which musical instruments were forbidden.

“The Church of Christ,” he told me, “was very literal in their interpretation of things, and that turned me off. I couldn’t do that.”

So he drifted away from a faith commitment as he was getting a degree in music composition from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music.

“Currently I don’t really have religious beliefs,” he said. “I’m more agnostic. If I wanted to be part of a faith I’d really want to commit to it.” But he isn’t ready for that.

Instead he spends weekends offering music at four different Jewish and Christian worship settings: “They’ve all been so accepting and loving,” he says.

He’s now come out as transgender and has begun hormone therapy that may change how he performs.

“I started as a mezzo soprano but in high school sang alto,” he told me. He still can do either, depending on what’s needed.

But with hormone therapy “my voice will probably start to drop. And I’m quite happy about that. It’s caused me some distress to not be able to sing lower.

“But I don’t know where it will end up.”

That’s also a pretty good description of area musicians from one religion who, a little to their surprise, end up serving a different one and demonstrating the value of interfaith understanding.

Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily “Faith Matters” blog for The Star’s website and columns for The Presbyterian Outlook and The National Catholic Reporter. His latest book is The Value of Doubt: Why Unanswered Questions, Not Unquestioned Answers, Build Faith. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.

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