The great idea came to Burton Bartels one dawn, several months after his mother's funeral in Iowa. He had visited her faithfully in the forty years since he'd left. At least once a year he had gone back home. At first he'd made the trip with family, but then, as his children grew and his wife's business dominated more of her time, he'd gone alone. He'd tried to get his mother to move to a rest home in San Mateo, but stubbornly she'd insisted on staying in snowy Holland Center—the town where she was born and where, finally, she died.
The doctors had called the family to her bedside in late January, midwinter, and by the time he'd arrived, her life had already been dependent on the machines that gauged the rhythm of her breathing in a series of thin amber lines. But when he'd finally arrived and had seen her lying there, the only thought he'd had, the thought that he didn't tell anyone, not even his siblings, was his shock at how far one could journey from his or her roots— specifically how really distant a mother could look to a man who'd once been almost as dependent on her as she was now on the machines that kept pumping her blood.
What had made him cry that weekend was not his mother's death, but the truth his own vagrancy made vivid: he really didn't need his mother—and he hadn't for years.
But he had never told anyone what he'd felt, not even his wife, and he had buried his mother there, in a country churchyard, with memories that he thought to be already, for the most part, long gone.
The notion of the Peace Psalmsters came to him one morning a few months later—another addition to his growing list of great marketing ideas.
That great idea came to him in those strange images that are lolling in the mind the moment one hears a morning alarm. He woke up with a memory of the funeral—a memory he'd stuck away so deeply that it rose only in his dreams. What he heard that morning was the sound of a Dutch Psalm.
For her funeral, his mother had requested Psalm 84, in the Dutch. So Burton Bartels, the only one of his brothers and sisters in suede, had sat in the front bench of the white-frame church where he was baptized, and listened to a few old voices in the church who could still sing the Dutch, long and slow in coming, an ancient drone that seemed almost eerie.
That's what he remembered that June morning as he was waking up. The harmony of Psalm 84 was sounding rhythmically in his brain, and he suddenly realized that the Psalms were the thing. If Peace Church was ever to garner its share of California's teeming multitudes, it had to have a gimmick. Why couldn't it be Psalmsters—a group of singers who could bring life to the vivid and harmonic melodies of the old Dutch Psalms? Ethnics, he thought—everybody's into ethnics. It's a great idea for a ministry. After all, the Philipinos have their islander chants; the Mexicans, their ; the Bolivians, their huaino. My word, he thought, Paul Simon imported South African choruses for one album and Brazilian percussion for the next. Why couldn't he use Dutch Psalms?
It was just the ministry Peace Church needed. So Burton Bartels, construction czar become musical entrepreneur, explained to everyone that the Psalmsters were going to become his own kind of ministry. And that was exactly what they became.
The group's repertoire was drawn in its entirety from the old Dutch Psalter—authentic Genevan Psalms, in the Dutch (one can avoid the offense of faith words in another language, of course), but preserved in their integrity and sung without accompaniment in the original rhythms.
What they did was simply beautiful. What's more, in Southern California, no one else was doing it. People thought that the old Psalms, with their slow and rhythmic strength, were incredibly haunting and yet stately, dignified, almost mystic—like Gregorian chants but of wider girth in harmonic structure. So quaint, people said, so exotic. They were, to sunny California, Christian and non-Christian, just unreal. The Peace Psalmsters, acapella, grew immensely popular.
After five years and dozens of engagements, Burton Bartelsówho'd never had much musical training except for the nearly daily menu of psalms and hymns he'd heard his mother play on the Wurlitzer in the family room—gave up the baton to Evert Nykamp, a Dutch musicologist from UCLA. Nykamp wasn't a Christian but, my word, did he know music!
That's when the governor called. That's when ethnic festivals from San Diego and San Francisco begged their participation; that's when Burton Bartels began spending long nights on the phone, arranging performances at community churches two and three years ahead of time.
And that's when they received the request to tour in the Netherlands. Nykamp claimed that the Holland of his birth would look upon the whole enterprise with the same curiosity as North Americans did—so far behind them, too, was the tradition of Genevan Psalms.
But in a little village just off the North Sea, Burton Bartels's great idea died—or at least his heart went out of it. In that village—so small you could walk from one end to the other in ten minutes—Bartels decided to visit the old fifteenth-century church where some long-ago Bartels family had worshiped generations before. It was a strange experience, and he was oddly moved. He was stunned by the fact that little more than a handful of people had worshiped within those walls for more than five hundred years—so long without growth. It was such a small place, room for maybe one hundred, at most. No room for fellowship.
A woman had admitted him to the church, an old Dutch lady with a protruding forehead and button-like eyes. She knew little English, but was excited to understand that the names on the stones in the Pilam churchyard were ancestors of the American who came to her door in such a strange hat.
As Burton stood with the old woman in that tiny Frisian church, he imagined what the Peace Psalmsters would sound like in such a small place, so old. Meanwhile, the woman scrambled about, muttering things in Dutch, pointing to this and that, and finally dragging an extension cord from beneath a bench in the back.
"You like this?" she said to him, and she strung the orange cord all the way from the back of the church up to a little Hammond organ that stood opposite the pulpit. She played a few chords, proudly, producing a tinny, flat, electronic sound. She rolled her eyes proudly. "We yust haf dis a yheah," she told him. "Maybe you like to play?" her bulk twisted slightly toward him on the shaky bench.
"No," he said, raising a hand.
"We are for 'dis so happy," she told him, wincing, as if it were a sin to be so proud.
She turned back to the organ and, hands poised, waited for some inspiration, as if the music had to be appro-pos. She shrugged her shoulders.
"'Vat to play?" she said, embarrassed, as much to herself as to him.
The old woman didn't look at all like his mother. Her vigor was the opposite of his mother's reticence, but she had a sense of humor like the woman who'd raised him. And his mother came back to him as he listened to the old woman play. She came back because he saw in that Pilam woman something he'd not felt in himself or the Psalmsters; something he'd seen, but long ago forgotten, in his mother. She came back to him because what the woman did was no performance, not at all the kind of singing his Psalmsters did in the name of ministry. What she did with her hands, in that old church, was play that cheap organ, proudly, in the way that his mother would haveóa way that he could only identify as worship.
The old woman didn't even play the Psalms his mother had loved and his Psalmsters sang. She played "Shall We Gather at the River," hammering so heartily on the keys that she threatened the bench with the force of her hands, her shoulders rolling, eyes up, round fists pounding as if her fingers were capable of volume. But what he heard unquestionably was the sound of something he'd thought he'd forgotten for so many years, something he'd felt eerily in the weakened voices of a few old folks, something so real it made him look away.
"These iss new," she told him again when she was finished, and she rubbed her hands over the top of the organ as if it were waiting to be stroked. "'Ve iss all so proud," she said. When he didn't respond, she asked, "You haf maybe sometink in your eye?"
He shook his head.
To say that Burton Bartels's great idea died that day in Pilam, the Netherlands, would be a half-truth. The Peace Psalmsters have gone on to more fame and fortune, although now their members are drawn from a wider circle than the membership of Peace Church. Watch for them at a concert in your area. You'll never forget them.
But after that midday visit to the fifteenth-century church of his ancestry—after that recital on a four-hundred dollar Hammond, a rendition of "Shall We Gather"—Burton never again called the Peace Psalmsters a ministry.