Building Interfaith Respect and Understanding Through Music Festivals

By Keith Arnold, Minister of Music
Jefferson Unitarian Church, Golden, CO

Keith Arnold

Keith Arnold

In 2002, I was asked by a congregation member who was on the Board of The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado (TIA-CO) if I would consider organizing a concert performance that would bring together the sounds of different faiths, on behalf of TIA-CO.  The idea was to present a “Sacred Celebration,” an honoring of many musical and religious traditions.  After our Senior Minister endorsed my spending church time on this outreach project, I began a six-year involvement in this endeavor, directing annual Interfaith Music Festivals at large religious centers throughout our metro area.

Each year, in a letter inviting potential participants, I shared that “The concert is designed as a metro-wide event to bring together people of many beliefs and backgrounds, each expressing faith through music, dance, and storytelling.”  Through the six years that I was involved, the festival featured such presenters and sounds as Hindu chanting, handbell ringing, Protestant and Catholic choirs, Jewish cantors, Unitarian Universalist choirs, Hindu dancers, a Jewish-Sufi fusion band, chanting of the Koran, a Spirituals Choir, and a Buddhist youth rock band.

You can find a 30-second promotional video here:

There were countless lessons learned, including when those of various religious traditions could have a dress rehearsal (avoid Saturday mornings) and what food is appropriate for participant receptions (best to schedule these outside of Ramadan). Perhaps the most important lessons centered around relationship building over time, where over a period of years participants and religious leaders came to understand and value the Festival and their connection to it.

At the 2006 Interfaith Music Festival I said this:

“Tonight, we set this time apart to look into one another’s eyes, to listen to each other’s voices, to hear with delight the varied sounds that express the beauty of our faiths.  We in this room were born in diverse lands, we were raised with different ideas of the meaning and purpose of our lives here on earth.  Our skin, our eyes, our thoughts, all vary.  But our hearts — tonight our hearts are open to music, to understanding, to change and learning.

“In a world full of mistrust, war, and religious hostility, we offer a stronger message: we consecrate this time to further mutual understanding.  By our presence here, we state our willingness to overcome the human foibles of anger and self-righteousness, instead promoting the highest universal principle of love.  May our time together foster life and love.”

From time to time, I was asked why I advocated for and directed this Festival for six years.  My answer was that my faith guided me to affirm the value of the inherent dignity of every person, with a goal of world community.  I believe in the role of music to be a connecting thread between people of many backgrounds, celebrating both unique practices and shared values.  These reasons are important to me today, even as they were in post-9/11 2002, the first year of the Interfaith Music Festival.  Today, my faith is as strong as ever, and our love, expressed through the music we bring to these festivals, guides us on.

A dove with a musical note, the symbol of the Interfaith Music Festival

Logo of the Interfaith Music Festival


Heart-to-Heartsongs: Music Ministry Thrives in Chandler, Arizona

By Kellie Walker, Music Director
Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Chandler, AZ

Kellie Walker

Kellie Walker

As the tone chimes began playing the chords, and the voices sang “Angels We Have Heard on High,” smiles broke out on the faces of the staff and family members, as well as on some of the residents of the small nursing home.  “See Anita,” someone whispered, “she’s singing –but she doesn’t even talk.”  Not only did the music bring joy, but singing together and helping each other play a tone chime gave family members an experience of still sharing a fun activity with their loved one.  I don’t know who was glowing more, the visiting church musicians, the families, residents, or the staff.

This observation was made after a “musical visit” made by some of our congregants to a nursing home in December, 2008.  For years, I had been trying to figure out how I could help others replicate what I had done as a music therapist in various settings, and occasionally in my church work: bring music to people in need, either at bedside or in community settings such as nursing homes and assisted living centers.  In the spring of 2009 my church, the Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Chandler, Arizona, received a grant from the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Fund for Social Responsibility which really gave a jump-start to my fledgling idea.

The Voices Lifted Singers, which I started in the winter of 2009 (and which is sponsored by our congregation) developed a partnership with Hospice of the Valley, a large and respected non-profit agency in our county (they served over 13,000 patients and families last year).  We regularly sing at three of their inpatient units, which gives us some incredibly moving experiences singing at bedside, and word of mouth has begun to give us many other singing opportunities.

We are beginning to get some great press, including a long article and multi-media presentation that is due to be published in the Phoenix New Times in mid-September.  Voices Lifted Singers is an ensemble for women and girls age 10 and above, open to singers in the greater community.  We now have 12-15 members, although when we sing at bedside we usually arrive with two to five singers.   A few weeks ago we sang at a breakfast meeting for over 100 clinical staff of Hospice of the Valley.  Not only did we get a potential new singer from this, but one nurse who heard us commented, “Your music was so soothing for us- I can just imagine how wonderful the singing must be for our patients.”  This work nourishes us as much as the people we sing to (and sometimes with).  One of our members said, “I don’t have that great of a voice, but when I’m singing in that environment it seems like my voice is beautiful, along with everyone else.”

This music ministry outreach has been extremely rewarding for me, as well.   My husband’s diagnosis of stomach cancer this past year has forced me to pay greater attention to my own self-care.  And the way we rehearse, with a lounge chair in the middle that we take turns sitting (or even lying) in, gives us the opportunity not only to practice singing with intention and love, but helps us be nourished by the gift of song. This year we hope to increase the membership of Voices Lifted, develop more anchor singers who can lead our “musical calls,” and increase the amount of outreach that our congregation has been doing over the last couple of years.   For the second year in a row our adult choir has been asked to be the choir at an interfaith service on Sept. 11.  Last year’s service at a local mosque, followed by our singing of many UU songs on a nearby street corner, was a highlight of the church year for many of us.  Next year I hope that some of those other congregations will have singers coming forward to join us as we build “Heart-to-Heartsongs,” our music ministry outreach program.

For more information:

Voices Lifted Singers rehearse

The Voices Lifted Singers rehearse


Serving in the Community

By Yuri Yamamoto
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, NC

An opportunity to participate in a social justice work can arise in an unexpected way. This is how the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh (UUFR) choir learned the joy of serving those who are in need.

A group that offers services to the AIDS community used to hold their monthly picnics in our fellowship hall. Most of their clients are poor and members of minority populations. One year, the UUFR choir was scheduled to have an annual retreat and got double-booked with the organization. When I arrived at our church in the morning to set up for the retreat, a lot of people from the organization were already unloading their food, gifts, and other supplies to set up their picnic in the fellowship hall. My first reaction was, “Oh, no, they are in our way! How am I going to kick them out?”

As I walked into the fellowship hall, I met a nervous face of the organizer. This was not the first time they had been double-booked with a church group, and she was very worried that she might be asked to move to a different room. Then, I had an idea. We must be meant to do something together, I thought. Let me have the choir come to sing at the picnic. I proposed the idea, and the organizer was relieved and delighted by the offer.

The choir did not have a lot of time to get ready for the impromptu gig. We decided to sing one of our favorites, “River in Judea” (Linda Marcus/Jack Feldman/arr. John Leavitt), an inspiring, gospel-style song, and “This Little Light of Mine” from Singing the Living Tradition.  We did not know what to expect, and were even a little nervous. Some of us have never met someone with AIDS or sung for those in need. What would the picnic participants be like? Would they enjoy our songs? Would we sing well without rehearsal?

It turned out that the choir sang with gusto, and the audience was enthusiastic.  They sang “This Little Light of Mine” with the choir. They held our hands and wanted to visit with us.  After the visit, the choir talked about the experience. We were excited and realized that we had received as much as we gave — or even more. We decided that we wanted to sing in the community more. A few months later, we went back to the AIDS-support picnic as well as to a retirement home to sing Christmas carols.

This “accident” taught us a wonderful lesson, that giving is receiving.  I know there will be more music shared, and enjoyed, in the months to come for the UUFR choir – a gift for us all.

Welcome to an Exploration of Ministry Through Music

As the old news films from the Civil Rights era run, the images of committed people, engaged in non-violent demonstration in support of voting rights, are punctuated by music:  Walking to the Promised Land, We Shall Overcome, and many more.  And as gatherings were held in state capitols where legislators debated the right to equal marriage, religious and lay leaders walked down the street led by, encouraged by, music:  We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table, We Would be One.

In the days following the attacks on our country in September, 2011, composer Sarah Dan Jones wrote Meditation on Breathing, encouraging calm and peacefulness in the midst of a turbulent and uncertain time.  And Jason Shelton wrote Standing on the Side of Love after sitting in (then UUA President) William G. Sinkford’s office, hearing him discuss the his commitment to marriage equality throughout the United States.

Musician and activist Holly Near wrote Singing for Our Lives, which is published in the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Singing the Living Tradition, on the night that George Moscone and Harvey Milk were killed in San Francisco. Near said, of that time, “The rage we felt after the assassinations was so powerful…and we had a choice at that moment, to fall prey to grief and rage, or to turn those emotions into a movement… Along with the sadness and the grief and the missing comes the excitement that we as human beings have the potential to change the world — again and again and again.  And as I was riding to one of the demonstrations and vigils I began to write this very simple song.  And you sang it, and sang it, and sang it.”

Such connections, linking social action to music and our faith, are a key area of emphasis for all who aspire to become  certified Music Leaders within the Unitarian Universalist Association.   The community service project which is a required component of the certification program  “… is to benefit the wider community or geographic area in which the candidate’s congregation is located. The project should assist and support causes of social justice or social assistance outside of the congregation, and should not be a fund-raiser for the congregation…after the project’s completion, a one-page essay should reflect on the effects of the project on the participants and recipients, as well as lessons and insights learned from the project.”

Such ventures take musicians in the direction of public concerts, rallies, lecture/demonstrations, and always, toward deeper community involvement.  As this blog evolves, the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network hopes to share the stories of those who have engaged in such an important ministry as a way of linking music to faith – frequently with benefits those involved never imagined.

If you have an experience to share, please email your story to: or  Please include your association with a Unitarian Universalist congregation or the wider denomination, your professional role (if applicable), and contact information.  Please make your story no more than 800 words, and indicate, in writing, your willingness to have your material both edited and shared in this forum.  Thank you!