I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area during the Cold War. I remember learning how to “Duck and Cover” in the hallway of my elementary school, in case of nuclear attack. I took Russian Language, Russian Literature, and the Politics and Economics of the Soviet Union in high school. I continued this line of study into college when I decided to declare a Russian Studies major. At the end of my sophomore year I transferred to the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at a Canadian University. Having enough credits to complete the major, I decided to double-major in Religious Studies. I thought that if more people understood the language, history and literature of a people, we could make peace, even if our governments failed us.
That was over 30 years ago.
When was the last time you heard the words “Soviet” or “Soviet Union”?
The Institute of Soviet and East European Studies is no more and I never made it to Russia.
But today I sit in the quietude of the Old Dutch Church watching our guest musicians tune their instruments for the penultimate performance of our Seven Sundays Celebration of Music in Worship.
Mikhail, Elina and Leonid are part of a larger Russian/Ukrainian music and dance ensemble called “Barynya”. Performing during our Reformed worship service is a first for them. Having Russian music in our Old Dutch church is a first for us.
These “Seven Sundays” have become somewhat of a cultural exchange. Irish piper, Jerry O’Sullivan was here recently with the haunting sounds of his Uilleann Pipes. We’ve had Native American flutes and African Drummers. The sounds of Broadway, Pop, Folk, Gospel, and Civil Rights have enriched and enlightened our congregation. But I’ve never seen the children as entranced as they were by the Elina’s fingers as they danced across the strings of her Balalaika. They stared with mouths wide open. (I think her red gown may have captured their attention as well!)
As Mikhail was packing up he told Jeremy that this was a very different kind of performance for them. He was smiling, so I think he had a good time. I wondered what it was like from their perspective travelling up from Brighton Beach to Sleepy Hollow. Our church interior is very simple, perhaps even plain, in comparison to the icons that adorn the iconostasis of a Russian Orthodox church. The Old Dutch has a contemplative feel to it, whereas the Russian Orthodox churches I’ve been in have a sense of mystery about them. Customarily, choral singing is performed unaccompanied in the Russian liturgy, recalling its roots in Chant. At the Old Dutch, we sing our hymns accompanied by organ – an instrument foreign to Orthodox worship. I sat with my thoughts during our service, just marveling at the fact that we were all gathered together to share the gift of music.
Christ is the brother of strangers. Sometimes we forget that. Gathering people to himself as he taught and walked the land, throwing out his net for the Jew and the Greek. The Samaritan and the Pharisee. The rich and the poor. The righteous and the sinful. All drawn together to learn the gospel of “Love one another”. No room here for “Duck and Cover”.
If you imagine the Old Dutch upside down, you’ll see that the ceiling looks like the inside of a boat. A fitting design for a place that is charged with the message of salvation. And during these Seven Sundays we are reminded that salvation can come in the words of a song, the breath that animates a flute, the majestic chords of the “King of Instruments” and the touch of the strings of the balalaika.