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Sisters set prayers of human heart into song


Christian faith is supported by prayer. Each one of us communicates with God in widely different ways, though prayer in song is a popular vehicle.

New York-based sisters and musicians Suzzy and Maggie Roche have collaborated with others on a work of song and spirit called “Zero Church,” an album containing prayers that the Roches have set to music.

“When we began our search for prayers, I wasn’t sure what we were doing,” Suzzy Roche told NCR. “It’s amazing because [the prayers were] just randomly collected, but [the album] comes together as one piece.” These works are wrought with emotion, as are most prayers offered up on a daily basis from the trenches of work, family life or ministry.

“Anyway” is a famous prayer that can be found hanging on the wall at Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity orphanage in Calcutta, India. It was originally written by Kent Keith in 1968 and titled “The Paradoxical Commandments.”

People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self centered
Forgive them anyway …
What you spend years building,
someone could destroy overnight
Build anyway …
The good you do today, people will
often forget tomorrow
Do good anyway.

“Sounds” was written by Karen Bashkirew in response to the murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 in Laramie, Wyo. An openly gay student at the University of Wyoming, 22-year-old Shepard was robbed, pistol-whipped and left for dead tied to a fencepost by two men who had posed as homosexuals. The lyrics describe how sounds of despair hang unerased in time. This reflection was based on Shepard’s mother’s grieving as seen in television coverage of the event.

Can you imagine the sounds she
when she heard what they did to her
These sounds
are streaking through space forever.

“Zero Church” was conceptualized by the Roches and compiled at the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard University during the summer of 2001. The album is a collection of prayers written mostly by participants in the institute community, with some traditional pieces also included. Once the prayers were selected, the Roches composed nearly all the music to accompany them. The prayers were recorded at the Shinebox in New York.

The album draws its name from an address. Zero Church Street in Cambridge, Mass., is the address of a church where many of the institute meetings and rehearsals took place.

Founded by Anna Deavere Smith and funded in part by the Ford Foundation, the institute focuses on artistic collaboration and discovery while exploring issues of race, identity, diversity and community. Visiting artists come together with an audience at the institute to work on various projects, and the Roches saw this as the place to begin their prayer collection.

The album does not focus on a certain type of prayer, nor does it center on any one religious denomination. “Zero Church” contains traditional spirituals, as well as prayers in poem form, life reflections and prayers of Hispanic and Jewish origin.

“Teach Me O Lord” is a traditional hymn for wisdom and guidance, and “Hallelujah” is a prayer of an AIDS patient that has seen the face of death and found hope along the way.

“New York City” is a prayer about Sept. 11. Suzzy Roche composed the words and music for this piece.

New York City is down on her knees
New York City is praying …
Can we push the clouds of fear apart
and rest our sadness on Thy heart?

The original release date of the album by Red House Records was Sept. 11. It had been postponed, and the Roches were putting the final touches on “Zero Church” that fateful week. On the morning of the terrorist attacks, Roche was walking her dog. As she rounded the corner at Ninth Avenue, she saw the World Trade Center transform into a fireball. “My mind couldn’t make sense of it,” she said.

A woman contacted Suzzy Roche and asked her to sing at a memorial service for one of the firehouses: Squad One in Brooklyn. “I just couldn’t think of anything I could sing. I said a prayer that day, and asked for a song to sing for those people.” The song “New York City,” which she wrote, was the answer to that prayer. “So many people asked for a copy of that song that we figured we would just put it on the record.”

Suzzy, Maggie and a third sister, Terre Roche have been performing music together since they were young. “We’ve been singing together for our whole lives. We grew up in the Catholic church singing in choirs, so we were very well-suited to do this project,” said Suzzy Roche. Terre, as well as David Roche, their brother, are guest vocalists on the album.

Suzzy and Maggie Roche, along with a group of about 30 others, will be performing the prayers of “Zero Church” in New York April 12-14 at Arts at St. Ann’s. The Roches are also asking people from the community to contribute new prayers at the performance. The idea is to keep the project constantly evolving. Said Suzzy Roche, “Prayer is a huge subject matter. You could go on for years.”

So much “religious” music is sappy, sentimental or irrelevant. These songs take the cries and whispers of the human heart and raise them to high art and good listening. As one of the songs, a Shaker hymn, puts it:

I know how to pray …
for God has blessed me with a broken
and true godly sorrow for sin.

Related Web sites

Red House Records

The Roches

Matt Stoulil is NCR layout assistant. His e-mail address is mstoulil@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002