Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #095. First published in the St. Cloud Times online June 6, 2015; in print June 7

Today's theme is the opposite of last month's.

Then I talked about former U. S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's enthusiastic prediction that the catastrophic end of the world is near at hand, according to the divinely written screenplay of warfare and destruction of her rapture theology.

Now I am talking about an event a week ago shaped by a radically different understanding of the divine plan.

The occasion was unprecedented. No one can remember a prior time when the choirs of Technical High School and Apollo High School came together for a performance. That's 45 years, since Apollo was built. The fact of the collaboration is itself worthy of celebration. I overheard one audience member say, with a twinkle in his eye, that he couldn't tell which students belong to which school.

But there is so much more.

The choirs presented "The Peacemakers," an ambitious 90-minute choral work by Karl Jenkins. According to Jason Parker, Apollo's choir director, and Nicholas Hollermann, Tech's, this composition was chosen because it resonates with the St. Cloud school district's mission statement: "To create a safe and caring climate and culture in which we prepare, engage, educate, empower and inspire all learners in partnership with their surrounding community to be successful in today's and tomorrow's society."

"The Peacemakers" theme is established by this from the 13th-century Persian mystic, Rumi: "All religions, all singing one song: Peace be with you."

Rumi is stretching. Even if there are streams in all religions that sing of peace — Jenkins sets to music passages material from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Quran and Baha'u'llah (founder of Baha'i) — there are other streams in the same religions that don't sing that song. Think Catholic and Protestant warfare in the 17th century, ISIS now.

But Rumi, like Martin Luther King Jr., like Mahatma Gandhi, like Mother Teresa, like Nelson Mandela, like the Dalai Lama — all of whom are quoted in "The Peacemakers" — had a dream.

And that dream is at hand. Right at the end of the work, embedded in the finale called "Peace, triumphant peace," are words from Anne Frank, written shortly before she died in 1945, not yet 16 — an age many of the singers are already beyond: "How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."

Here the huge significance of the concert last Sunday becomes evident. Two hundred young people learn and sing words by cultural giants whom many might otherwise know, if at all, only as names. In so doing, the students are prepared, engaged, educated, empowered and inspired to imagine a world different from the one they see in news reports. And from someone their own age, they hear it can be done, they can do it, and they can start right now — "no one need wait."

Parker and Hollermann put it this way: "During this collaboration, students have engaged in deep, meaningful and sometimes very personal and difficult conversations about how they see peace reflected in their own lives and community, nation and the world."

British composer Benjamin Britten wrote, "Music does not exist in a vacuum, it does not exist until it is performed, and performance imposes conditions."

The same is true of education. It does not exist in a vacuum, it does not exist until it is performed — that is, until students and teachers and administrators and parents and a school board and a whole community make it happen — and performance imposes conditions.

"The Peacemakers" concert links the first part of the school district's mission statement — the "safe and caring climate and culture" to "prepare, engage, educate, empower and inspire" — with the second part — "all learners (are) in partnership with their surrounding community."

The concert took place in Ritsche Auditorium at St. Cloud State University. It was made possible with a grant from the Local Education & Activities Foundation. The 31-piece orchestra included many local musicians in addition to some from the high schools' ensembles. The conditions imposed by performance were met by the community.

Before long we will be asked to provide resources for the conditions — a new Tech High School and a renovated Apollo — imposed by the performance of education in the 21st century.

When it comes time to vote, think about this concert, the teachers who imagined it, the students and area citizens who sang and accompanied it, the university that hosted it, the supporters who funded it, and remember that "no one need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world."