The World House Choir performed its debut concert to celebrate the birthday of Coretta Scott King. Like Mrs. King did all her life, this new community choir in the Miami Valley sings to promote peace, social justice, and diversity. Behind every grass roots movement for equality, songs of struggle inspire people toward social change. Community Voices Producer, David Seitz, tells us about this unique choral group.
Cathy Roma, director of the World House, warms up the choir with a song, “We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For,” that not only exercises the choir’s vocal chords but reminds them of their social purpose.
“It’s like we keep waiting for somebody else to come along to get us all together,” Roma says, “My idea is that we are enough, and through our collective work together we can make change, and not wait for some one person to come along and say, ‘Let’s do this.’”
For thirty years, Roma directed Muse, a women’s choir in Cincinnati that sings for peace and social justice. She named The World House Choir after one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s final essays. In his essay, King compares our modern world to a house that we all have inherited and must live in together if we are to survive.
“I thought, ‘Wow, you know, the World House Choir,’” Roma says, “Aren’t we all supposed to be on this planet getting along? And how do we do that? And how do we affect change by our singing?”
Roma co-founded the choir with Reverend Derrick Weston, Director of the Coretta Scott King Center at Antioch College. While Roma was first inspired by Dr. King, Reverend Weston sought to revive the activist work of Mrs. King, who spoke out for other social issues long after Dr. King’s death. Reverend Weston notes that Coretta Scott King was an amazing soprano and trained musician whose singing inspired freedom marchers.
“That’s something that music can do that an essay can’t,” Weston says. “That’s something that music can do that even the most coherent logical proof can’t; compel people to move and get out of their seats the way music can.”
Weston and Roma believe this kind of musical energy will raise awareness for issues of social justice within Ohio and beyond. So it’s not just what the choir sings, but where they sing and with whom. Roma wants to reach those who do not come to concerts in halls or churches.
“What happens if we go to Dayton and we sing in the street?” asks Roma. “Or what happens if we go to Warren Correctional or to Madison Correctional?”
Roma wants the World House Choir to sing with prison inmates to call attention to those who are most forgotten. But she also believes this activism begins with nurturing the diversity of a singing community who learn from each other’s differences.
Cathy Roma believes that, “Maybe if everybody could say, ‘I feel better when there are Muslim people or Jewish people or African American people,’ or…young people, people in high school or people in college, it feels like a better community when we have these people singing together.”
Cheryl Levine, a Jewish member of the World House Choir, connects this diversity to the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, the commandment to help others make the world whole. Levine had never joined a community chorus before because the usual repertoire of Christian songs feels alienating to her.
“Instead of feeling part of a community, I feel…separate,” Levine says, “I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m singing about Christ on the cross and this is so not me,’ and so you just sort of silently sing these words, and you’re thinking, wow, I’m really a Jewish Girl here!”
But the World House Choir is different. Levine believes that this choir will welcome these religious differences rather than assume everyone feels the same about the lyrics.
As a tribute to Mrs. King, Roma chose a repertoire of mostly spirituals and gospel style songs for this debut concert.
“It’s a strange thing,” Levine says, “to be talking and singing about Jesus, you know, as a Jewish woman. It feels strange in my mouth. But we must remember that under that strangeness are so many universal truths and desires, so when I know when I’m singing about Jesus in this choir, I’m singing a prayer for hope and for faith and for love and for peace. And I guess that’s okay with me.”
Fortunately both Reverend Weston and Cathy Roma also recognize the need for a multicultural repertoire as the choir grows.
Reverend Weston puts it this way: “I want the repertoire of the choir to speak to the spiritual longings that come from all of our faith traditions and from those who have no faith tradition but who are still longing for purpose and meaning and who do have awareness of soul and spirit. I also feel like there are songs of struggle that come from more than just the spirituals. Immigrant communities have their own songs of struggle.”
With the opening song of the Coretta Scott King concert, Cathy Roma encouraged an inclusion of the whole audience within the World House.
“It was almost like an invitation to dialogue,” Weston says. “From the very first piece the barrier between this is a choir and this is an audience came down. It was a really spiritual moment that gave you this feeling that we’re about to experience something really unique together.”
Near the end of the concert, Reverend Weston spoke of how Coretta Scott King had to find her own voice after her husband’s death. He compared Mrs. King’s experience to the mission he hoped for the World House Choir.
Weston reminded the audience, “All of this tonight has been about us finding our voice for those who don’t have a voice.” “The next group of people who will hear this choir perform will be a group of prison inmates because they need to have their voices heard in a system that has been developed to treat people like numbers, in a system that has been developed to dehumanize people. They need a voice. And we’re going to give them a voice and be a voice along with them.”
Cathy Roma added to Weston’s call, “There’s lots of work to be done, so eloquently spoken by Derek Weston. Now, there’s one more job and that is a song to sing.”
After the concert, Roma summed up the goals of the World House Choir, “How do we get the nerve to meet somebody that’s different? Maybe we go sing and we join issues and ideas that are important to that group of people and join with them and then it gets bigger and bigger. We don’t want to just come together to sing. That’s not the purpose. It’s to be in each other’s lives and sing.”
Since their debut concert, the World House Choir visited Madison Correctional prison to sing with Ubuntu, a male inmate choir directed by Cathy Roma. In the fall, the choir will also perform for a 9/11 memorial and the U.N. International Day of Peace.