Sunday morning is not the time for sleeping off a bad night of boozing or shooting up. Nor is it time for making more broken promises to yourself that you know you’re going to break. At least that’s true for choir members at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge (MnTC). For these addicts in recovery, the chance to sing music before a crowd gets them out of bed.
Every Sunday morning groups of clients from MnTC’s long-term residential treatment program head off to area churches to sing songs of hope and build connection through music. They sing Christian songs that speak of God as the rescuer from downward living, with words like these:
If you’ve got pain
He’s a pain taker
If you got chains
He’s a chain breaker
Churches welcome this uplifting music and message. In return, they often respond by offering a wide range of support to the program – from doing mentoring to sending over pizza lunches for everyone living at the treatment houses. Some churches also provide financial assistance.
Positive lyrics connect
Choir members speak of these performances as a way to experience a bonding with God as well as with others. Ashley German, who spent 20 years married to methamphetamine use, has stayed clean since she entered MnTC’s long-term program in January of 2020. Participation in the choir is a program requirement. Though German had no background in singing or churchgoing, her choir experience has changed all that.
The choir helped him to rebuild his faith, which helps keep him from going back to using.When she is singing with the choir in front of a congregation, she says, “I feel a spiritual connection to my peers.” And there is more. “I’m part of something bigger than myself,” she says. She calls the lyrics “powerful” and finds something hard to name but compelling in “standing up and declaring those words.”
The titles and lyrics of songs chosen for these performances speak of overcoming, of being a child of God, of belonging. “In my Father’s house, there’s a place for me,” one song pronounces. For German, getting up in front of others and singing these messages gives her a boost. “I realize even a junkie like me can have the confidence to do this,” she says.
As part of the church performances, some choir members and others from the MnTC program usually “testify,” as they say, to how God has freed them from their destructive drug-using habits. Their stories reinforce the sung messages. “There is power in sharing what we’ve been through,” says German.
Church congregation members typically offer appreciation and encouragement after the performances, helping choir members feel supported as they work to build a new life free of drugs. According to Deneen Easter, who directs the choir program for MnTC, “They feel supported by the community, and they feel loved by the community. They feel the generosity of people.” The MnTC program participants, she says, “are not used to somebody sharing their heart with them or sharing their resources or showing them love and showing them compassion. I think that’s probably the biggest eye opener for the clients is that they see that, well, there are people out there that really care about me, and they don’t even know who I am.”
A music educator with a master’s degree in choral conducting, Easter is also a licensed pastor. Music ministry is her passion. She says, “We can express a lot of our inner thoughts through music, and it can draw us together when we’re doing something in conjunction with, in unity with, everybody else.” At any one time, she may have over 200 clients involved in choirs at the Twin Cities, Rochester, Duluth, Buffalo, and Brainerd Locations. She directly oversees the choirs in the five residential houses in the metro area, and she works closely with choir directors in the other MnTC centers. Not only do the choirs go out to various churches every Sunday, but they also perform for a series of galas and other concerts throughout the year.
Positive messages replace bad ones
Easter says she chooses the songs to give her clients new, positive messages to live by. “Sometimes that little voice in your head tells you how bad you are,” she says. “It tells you all the bad stuff and we tend to listen to that, but my goal as a choir director in choosing the songs is to present them with really positive things – scriptural things and truths – that they can just grab ahold of, so when they go through the hard times, they can go back to the songs. It’s pretty fun to see them change – to embrace the positivity of the songs.”
That’s exactly what happens for German, who says that if she finds herself in a troublesome spot, “The Lord brings me the lyrics,” and she starts singing songs like, “There Is Power in the Name of Jesus.” Singing the uplifting message “realigns my thoughts – in a moment,” she says.
Recent program graduate Sinai Thao has a similar experience. On tough days, he says, he turns to prayer and then he finds himself “putting on good worship music and just singing at the top of my lungs.”
For Thao, music is a channel to connect to God. Thao, whose father was a pastor, grew up playing drums in a church band, but after his father died from a heart attack at a young age, Thao blamed God. He also carried the pain of having had a harsh argument with his dad not long before his death, with no chance to resolve it. He turned to alcohol and later to cocaine for comfort, going from job to job and eventually losing his marriage. Then, he says, “In 2017 I flatlined in the hospital. In 2019 I had a heart attack, and I was 39. I’ve been sober now for two years, which is only by the grace of God.”
In 2017 I flatlined in the hospital. In 2019 I had a heart attack, and I was 39. I’ve been sober now for two years, which is only by the grace of God.The choir helped him to rebuild his faith, which helps keep him from going back to using. “Being able to be part of the MnTC choir and being able to share my testimony was huge. It helped me to humble myself,” Thao says. “Singing with other people is my way of connecting with God. When I sing worship songs, it reminds me of where I was and how much God has put into my life.”
Thao was a soloist with the choir and also served as a conductor. Between concerts and weekly choir practices, he also helped other men with their singing and with playing in a “worship band.” As he did so, Thao enjoyed learning about the behind-the-scenes work of creating music. “I could run the sound, and we would practice, and I would conduct while we were playing music,” he says.
“It was really helpful to just take charge and to take the lead. It’s helped me become a better leader, a servant, to be able to help other men be comfortable in singing and conducting so that they can share their testimony.”
Singing has staying power
Easter is continually getting a new crop of singers to work with as clients pass through the thirteen-month recovery program.
“They don’t all have beautiful, wonderful voices,” she acknowledges, “but I give them voice lessons, I give them coaching and ear training and all sorts of stuff to help them overcome their fear of getting up in front of people and especially in front of the peers. It is empowering to them. It gives them a chance to step out beyond their fear.”
Graduates often tell Easter how much they miss the choir, even the clients who at first thought being in a choir wasn’t cool. She hears stories of how the song messages stay with them, and it makes her glad.
German says that, to her, the choir was like “one big family.” Her friendships with others from the program continue, she says.
Thao recently sat in on a program graduation ceremony where the choir sang, and he found himself joining in the song. He does the same when listening to Christian radio stations, he says. “I remember the words. They stay with me.”
Pat Samples is a Twin Cities writer, writing coach, and champion of creative aging. Her website is patsamples.com.
Last Updated on July 15, 2021