The More We Get Together: An interview with Jorge Lockward, minister of music to both a Spanish-and-English-speaking congregation

I got off the subway and walked a couple of blocks to the big brick church on the corner of Amsterdam and 105th in New York City. West End Presbyterian Church has been on that corner for over a hundred years and has seen many changes, especially in the past generation.

When I arrived, the choir rehearsal had already begun; choirs from both congregations (the 11 a.m. English-speaking and 1 p.m. Spanish-speaking) were rehearsing for a joint worship service. Jorge Lockward, directing from the piano, was surrounded by all four choirs: the traditional chancel choir, a gospel choir, a praise team, and a junior choir. Speaking now in English, now in Spanish, and always speaking eloquently from the keyboard, Lockward moved from one choir and one musical style to another as they worked their way through the music for the service.

This was a big day. They had not had a joint service for almost a year. But things are changing at West End. For generations, West End Church stood in the high church tradition with a robed chancel choir and robed junior choir. Lately they’ve been a church in search of an identity. They have had both English and Spanish services for more than thirty years, each with its own minister and own director of music, even though structurally they were always one congregation who shared one board of elders and deacons.

Three years ago the church took a large step in their search for a new identity. They decided to look for a minister of music who could serve both congregations within the larger congregation.

During the potluck following the service, Pastor Alistair Drummond spoke of the importance of that decision: “Between the two services we now have a much clearer sense and respect for each other’s worship. The development of a gospel choir for the English service and of a praise team for the Spanish service has really helped to build respect for each other’s worship. That respect enables the people to come together with one spirit today, which wasn’t the case two or three years ago. Then it was more like bringing a mosaic together.” After the potluck, Jorge and I talked about his ministry at West End.

—ERB

RW: Describe the challenges you found when you came to West End.

JL: I was called to West End Church with a specific purpose: Rev. Drummond had a vision of having a single minister of music for both congregations. He told me very clearly that they wanted to find bridges between the two congregations through worship and music so that down the road we might really be one. One issue was that more young people from the English service were starting to attend the Spanish service, so the Spanish service was becoming more bilingual. That’s why they needed someone who was also bilingual.

The challenge, of course, was one of musical styles. Some people like black gospel music, others like contemporary Christian music (CCM) and all kinds of other styles as well. We have had some fighting between our two congregations, especially in terms of worship. I always say that in multicultural worship, the main problem is not language or culture but power. Power is the problem when we think, as we do too often, that worship is something for us instead of something for God. How often we hear statements about “what will please me,” “what I like,” and so on. And of course, there is an element of worship that does empower people, because we reflect the gifts God has given us—we give them back. There is empowerment. But we’re definitely not the focus of that power; it’s kind of a by-product, not an objective in our worship.

So to see the people coming together today reflects a new spirit, and I’m grateful to God for that. For example, you noticed we started late. It was hard to get the whole thing together, of course, with all the different choirs. In the past, that would have been a big deal. They would have fried me alive if the service started two or three minutes late. But today there was a sense of understanding and relaxation. The people were greeting each other before the service and connecting with each other. But when everything was ready and Paul started to play his flute, everyone became silent and we started together. That was the first sign for me that things were beginning well, and I said, “Thank you, God” at that moment.

And then during the service to see everyone trying to sing in other languages—you don’t know what that meant to me. In this congregation the struggle has been profound. So I’m very grateful—it was a crystallizing moment this morning.

What contributed to this new spirit of collaboration? Did the addition of other choirs make a difference?

Let me mention a shift of thinking about the chancel choir, a group that has always included professional singers. At the beginning, it was assumed we need professionals, because we like a lot of “high music.” We still do; for Easter we sang part of the Easter section of the

Messiah, for example. I encourage all the choirs to sing a variety of music. It’s not a question of high and low, but of variety and spirituality within.

But gradually we started to add more volunteers, until we had more volunteers than professionals; that was the first step. The other choirs started to grow as well. Now the church is enjoying the worship team (in the Spanish service) and the black gospel choir and junior choir (in the English service) as much or more than the chancel choir. If people want to sing, you find the space, change things around. There is always a way. For example, when the gospel choir began, we fearfully proposed taking away some pews from one side section to create space for them. I’m still working on getting better lighting for them.

We had a very powerful meeting with the worship and music committee recently in which they raised the question about the need for professional singers in the chancel choir. I needed to wait for that question to come from them. Now that the other choirs were developing, they were ready to ask the question. So we decided to rethink this ministry completely when the singers go on break in the summer. We need to pray and discern together so that if we decide to call them back after the summer, it is because we believe that God wants them here and that there is a purpose in our ministry together, not just because we’ve always done it that way. This is a time for us to become mature.

With so many choirs, planning ahead must take a lot of care. How are worship services planned at West End?

For the Spanish services I get together with Pastor Amy Mendez and worship committee member Rose Deler, and we plan a month ahead. Then we get feedback from the worship and music committee and from the worship team in their rehearsals. For the English service there are only two of us involved, Pastor Alistair and I, with some input from the worship and music committee. For special services we have been gathering a group of about six to do planning together. They are very creative individuals.

Most of the planning meetings with the pastor are not planning per se so much as thinking together, finding common ground. We meet every Monday at 11 a.m. That is one of several highlights of my week. We worked hard at getting to the trust level of acknowledging each other musically and theologically—the pastor understanding that I have something theologically to offer to him and me understanding that he has something musical to offer me. We don’t consider ourselves in such separate areas that our two arenas don’t intersect. That attitude helps us and our planning to be tightly knit together.

Let me also tell you one of the wonderful things about this church that used to bug me a lot at the beginning. Presbyterians are very congregational, in the best sense of that word, in their belief that power lies within themselves. So they let their ministers know what they like and what they don’t like. I’m not used to that. Coming from a Methodist context, I’m more used to the attitude that if you hired me, it’s because you trust me and you’re going to let me do whatever I want, so to speak. But I’ve learned to appreciate their comments because they also give positive feedback.

For today, Alistair took a risk; he had planned to continue a series of sermons on Peter entitled “Upon This Rock,” and he had already worked on his sermon. But as the committee looked at the other passages assigned by the lectionary, they essentially said, Don’t preach on the Peter passage; we’d like one based on the John 10 passage about the Good Shepherd. For this joint service, we think it is more important to focus on the good news that the Good Shepherd knows each of us by name. What we need is to know one another. Even though our two congregations at West End have been worshiping in the same building for years, we still don’t know one another. Further in that same chapter in John—a part not included in the lectionary—Jesus said not only that he knows his sheep and they know him, but also “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (10:15). That is knowing in a very deep sense.

We asked—forgetting about what Alistair had prepared—how does this text speak to our situation as a church today? Not just as a congregation, but as a parish, the larger community. Our church, like many, is too far from thinking “the world is my parish.” Rather, often they think the members are their parish. That is too limited a perspective. At least, make your community your parish by becoming spiritually responsible to every person—the biggest responsibility there is.

Alistair was a little taken aback at first, because he already had his sermon planned, but two days later he came back with a new sermon, with something fresh. Part of what happened today that was so amazing to me comes from that spirit of openness from our pastor.

You also have a deep spirit of openness. What prepared you for this kind of diversity?

I’ve worked a lot ecumenically with Pentecostals, Methodists, and Presbyterians, but I grew up in a Plymouth Brethren Church where women wore veils and were not allowed to speak in public; they were allowed to sing though. There was no actual leader of the service in the Plymouth Brethren Church. But I discovered early on as a teenager playing the piano in worship that as a musician, I was a leader. I noticed that a lot of what happened in a service had to do with my own spiritual state. If I came into the service alive and connected, the service was connected. The power and responsibility I had really struck me. I distinctly remember the service in which I realized for the first time that I was a minister of music, not a musician—that music was a means, and the Spirit behind it was the main thing.

What happens in worship is God’s work, but as a leader, I am collaborating with God. And if I am not collaborating, God doesn’t allow it to happen. Of course, much of the time God goes over us, way above us. In a way God chooses to be in collaboration with me, and that is an awe-ful thing.

What models did you have growing up? Who influenced your thinking as a worship leader?

I grew up in the Dominican Republic and started learning piano by watching my mother play and learning when to turn the page. I started to play hymns—I think my first hymn was “He Arose.” My first experience playing in church was when a visiting missionary asked me to play when the children sang.

The biggest influence in my life was Rafael Grullón, a conductor and composer in the Dominican Republic. He was a very close friend to my father, and I used to play for him when he came to our home. One day when his choir was working on the Messiah, he called me and asked me to come to rehearsal; he said he needed help to teach the tenors their part for the first chorus. So he sent me into an alley next to the church to teach the tenors “And the Glory of the Lord.” I then started practicing the Messiah on the piano. It was very difficult, of course, since it was an orchestral reduction, and my mother became very tired of me playing the same thing over and over! I must have been about fourteen.

My first conducting experience came when Grullón called me just before a concert and said he had to go suddenly to Mexico—would I conduct? I had never conducted in my life! But some things I have to work hard at, and other things are a gift. Conducting was a gift. I put my hands up, conducted the concert, and enjoyed it very much. I first became assistant conductor, and then Grullón stopped completely and I took over. Those were my golden years in a way. We traveled a lot—to Haiti, Puerto Rico, New York. We did a lot of unconventional things like singing in prisons. We became a tight group of friends.

The Argentine composer and teacher Pablo Sosa has been another major influence in my life. I met him at a workshop in Nashville that I attended as a participant, and ended up becoming the accompanist. I learned a lot from him, especially how to lead a congregation, how to teach a song, and fearlessness, which didn’t come easily before, especially since I don’t have a good singing voice.

Another more recent influence has been my work on the new Spanish hymnal Mil Voces (Abingdon, 1996). I met the editor, Raquel Martínez, when we worked together for a Methodist women’s ministry event, and from then on, she took me under her wing. Working on that hymnal changed my life. My life in church music can be described as pre-hymnal and post-hymnal.

Where do you see God leading the church in bringing people together who are very different?

If I knew the answer to that question I would know the answer to the mystery of the Trinity, as when Jesus prayed to make us one as he and the Father are one. It’s a mystery in the Pauline sense of the term. Leaning to live in unity with one another is a very organic thing. I believe firmly that worship is the place where we need to model unity, because worship, when it is truly worship, is at the same time the most naked and fully clothed moment in the life of a person and of a community. We are both vulnerable and secure when worship truly happens. Worship includes these paradoxes. Whenever something happens in worship, it’s like a catalyst that begins a chain reaction. I’ve been at a few (quite a few!) worship services!

There is a controlling side in me that wants to “do” and change this and change that. And then there is the voice of the Spirit that continually reminds me just to stay in the process, to do what I’m called to do rather than pushing an agenda. For me it all starts with a willingness to be in process together. And with the understanding from Scripture that it will be a bumpy road. We are called to support one another, to get along, even though it’s clear that we will not always get along. That challenge is an opportunity God gives us to grow. We are called to it. But the “how to” is a process. How do you become a disciple? Do you pray four times, and do this or that three times? No, it’s walking the bumpy road with God.

What words of encouragement would you offer young people today who would like to become worship leaders?

If you have a calling, take it. It’s a wonderful calling. Get close to other people who are doing things that speak to you. Model yourself after those people. Don’t only cover your musical bases, but cover your theological bases. Know what you believe, not just what the books say, though you need to read books to find out where you are, what you think, what you believe. One of my rules in music ministry—that is sometimes difficult to honor—is that I will not say what I do not believe. That applies when I’m selecting music and also in the way we sing the music.

Be fully engaged in what you do. If not, you’re operating on some level of phoniness. And modern people spot phoniness right away. It’s not so much the doing of things that is important. The more important thing is to model for the congregation how you deal with challenges.

Emily R. Brink (embrink@calvin.edu) is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.

 

Jorge Lockward is minister of music at West End Presbyterian Church, New York City.