Threshold Choirs

Five years ago, after attending a workshop by Richard Lee on Meetings for Healing, I started a Meeting for Healing under the care of Ithaca (N.Y.) Meeting. The Threshold Choir has been a natural outgrowth of that work.

Threshold Choirs are for singing people over from this world to whatever comes next. Several groups in the United States and Canada are doing this work. I first heard about it at Friends General Conference. I was singing doo-wop with Joanne Fulgar and as we talked afterwards, she mentioned her participation. Joanne lives in the San Francisco Bay area, where Kay Munger has organized and led Threshold Choirs for a dozen years. Joanne most often sings at a Zen hospice, but there are ten choirs spread throughout the Bay Area that sing in a wide variety of venues; homes, hospitals and a variety of hospices. After communicating with Kay, I began a Threshold Choir in Ithaca. I sent out an invitation to all my singing friends, and we talked about how we would like to organize the choir and possibilities for establishing contact with those who could use our services. One of the people who attended was the director of volunteers at our local Hospicare Center. Ithaca, where I live, is blessed with an excellent Hospicare facility that is enthusiastically supported by the whole community. She suggested we come to sing for the residents on a regular basis.

We decided on a democratic format, where we all shared our expertise and listened carefully to one another. I agreed to do the e-mail list, scheduling, and the initial collection of songs and duplicating. Kate had sent me some music. I also went through Rise Up Singing, Worship in Song (the Friends hymnal) and Circle of Song, a book of sacred chants and rounds, to select music. As time has gone on we’ve found that residents resonate to songs about the circle of life, rivers, lullabies, nature, and gardens.

For some residents, songs about angels, God, and the hereafter are appropriate; i.e. "Julian of Norwich," "Angels Hovering Round," "Let it Be." Especially meaningful are songs the residents are apt to know, like "Red River Valley" and "Shenandoah." Sometimes a resident is at Hospicare for several months. When that happens we learn songs that have special meaning, sometimes by their favorite songwriter, with choruses that the resident can join in on. One resident talked about being able to let go when he sang with us, and it was clear that he was also speaking about letting go in a larger sense.

We sing for residents in their rooms, which means we only go in groups of two to four people. More people come to our monthly sings, which we hold one or two days before we sing at Hospicare. We use that time to process feelings and to sing and share with a spiritual focus. Our group is Quaker-based but not limited to Quakers. Last winter, as snow lay thick on the ground, we sang for one of the residents. As we sang, she and I witnessed a rabbit hop up to her glass door, sit, cock its head to listen, and then hop away. When the song was over I said to the other singers, "Did you see the rabbit come to listen to our song?" But they had not been able to see it. The resident, delighted, pointed out its footprints. I asked her, "Do rabbits come to your door very often?" She answered, "Never!" The staff were as surprised by this incident as were we.

On another occasion we were singing to a resident who was in a coma. He was very agitated. At first, as we sang, his restlessness increased, then as we continued, he slowly settled and went into a deep restful sleep. He died that night. Before we sing for anyone who is conscious, the nurses check with him or her to see if they would like us to come into their room. If they are unconscious, the staff and chaplain, based on their knowledge of the resident and their family, make the decision as to whether our presence would be helpful. Hospicare would welcome weekly visits, but we find at this time that monthly visits are what we can manage. We are also exploring with them the possibility of enabling volunteers who work with hospice patients who are still at home to call on us.

I have found that participating in Threshold Choir has been a deeply satisfying and challenging experience. For many of us it has brought up some of our own issues around death and dying. At our monthly meetings we spend some time processing our feelings and experiences. Hospicare’s director of volunteers is available to us for individual and group counseling. Not everyone is called to this work and our Hospicare Center has a policy that we follow, of not having close friends or family members volunteer for 14 months following the death of a loved one.

Often our conversations with the resident before, during, and after singing are as special as the singing. Many patients express their deep appreciation. One of them said, "It’s like being sung to by angels." It is not unusual for residents to become teary as we sing and/or to reach for one of our hands. The staff has encouraged us to follow the patient’s lead when it comes to touching.

Each time we come we have no idea what to expect. Last week only one bed was full and that resident was busy with personal care and family. The staff said they’d had a big turnover in the last week. So we sang in the living room—our Hospicare is like a family home. Several of the staff told us it was especially soothing and peaceful to hear us in light of their previous week.

Our Hospicare has many special programs. Massage therapists donate their services; one woman is recording residents’ stories and helping them with their autobiographies. There is so much wisdom among the residents and we are thankful it’s being recorded. They have a beautiful garden that is tended by schoolchildren and college students.

For members of Threshold Choir the experience has been one of opening, listening, giving, and receiving. For those who would like to start such a choir I would urge you to be open to the leadings of the Spirit and to welcome the gifts that will come, for you will learn and grow in unexpected ways.

This article was previously published in Toward Wholeness, the publication of Friends Fellowship of Healing, Spring 2005, and is reprinted with permission.

Melody Johnson

Melody Johnson, a member of Ithaca (N.Y.) Meeting, is a retired teacher and for 17 years has been a volunteer mediator at her local Community Dispute Resolution Center.