MOORHEAD — As a worship leader, music teacher and jazz singer, Kathie Brekke has been known to sing the blues. But she couldn’t have conceived the discordant notes that would bleed onto her score in March.
“All of the staples in our life, where we felt we were salting the earth with our music, vanished. Suddenly, you felt like you had nothing to give,” she says of COVID-19’s effects. “Everybody in our household was deeply impacted and really still is.”
Along with her and husband Shawn’s work as local music teachers, the couple also leads shows at Jasper’s Theater in Park Rapids, Minn., and she helps with “respite worship ministry” at area churches. Their son, Dan, 24, an entertainer and songwriter, was in Nashville in March, living his best life, Brekke says. “It went from music on every corner to completely shut down.”
The family had to abandon almost everything they’d known, realizing then how much of themselves they’d given through their music, and how personal it was to be able to sing for someone in need, she says. “We felt like the most meaningful part of our beings had been closed.”
Hunkering down together, they pondered what the world would be like without music, and how long this song-less trial might last. “The conversation then went to, ‘How can we give our music away at a time when people need it most?’”
Social media helped them reach listeners, and other opportunities eventually began returning, but it’s been hard, Brekke says, confronting the loss of something they’d done nearly every day of their lives — serving through music.
“It halts you, and you really have to look at the people in your home and reconnect with them,” Brekke says. “We all turned our outward selves to our inward family and nurtured each other.”
In April, they celebrated Easter alone in their cabin with Holy Communion. Daily walks helped give them a way to talk about their feelings and console each other when anxiety crept in.
In June, they helped lead several outdoor worship services, including one at Shoreham Chapel in Detroit Lakes, Minn.
“It was the first event I did since COVID started, and people cried. It was a tender thing,” Brekke says.
Kathie Brekke at the keyboard at Shoreham Chapel in Detroit Lakes, Minn., in June. Special to The Forum
And in July, they provided outdoor worship music at Cormorant Lutheran Church in Lake Park, Minn., with people spread out on a hill.
“We knew there were some there who’ve lost loved ones and haven’t been able to have a funeral,” she says, “So we did songs like ‘How Great Thou Art,’ which just melted them, because they hadn’t been able to grieve.”
Seeing the response of people, regardless of denomination, brought joy, Brekke says.
“People love to stand outside and clap along and feel like they are part of a greater good. There’s a sense of community and healing.”
Recently, she had a chance to sing at a funeral with her son. Though visiting was kept to a minimum, Brekke says their desire was to bring a healing presence.
“You have to really let the music speak for itself. Because there’s so little of it, you want it to have the greatest effect.”
The chance to do live singing, she says, is a great privilege, and “being able to give that gift has now become more precious than ever.”
‘It’s been awful’
At St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Moorhead, music liturgist Julie Hardmeyer still struggles with what the parish has been asked to do.
“It’s been awful,” she says of music ministry during COVID-19. “Here at St. Joseph’s, we have a long history of good liturgical music, so what happened really threw us for a loop.”
It was like being asked to do the opposite of everything they’d been reaching toward regarding liturgy, “not only in singing, but the active, conscious participation,” and “all the community-building things we’ve worked on for so long.”
Now, masks cover smiles, friends sit far apart and the act of praising God through song is muted.
“We just have a cantor and a piano player for all our Masses,” Hardmeyer says, in contrast to the 10 different choral groups of various ages that offered music prior to March. “Like all churches, we’re just doing the best we can to provide music and keep it all going.”
During recent funerals, they’ve brought back some parish musicians. “We spaced them out at appropriate distances, and they’ve done a beautiful job of respecting the guidelines.”
Some wanted a picture of their group afterward to memorialize their return.
“They really understand the healing power of music and the peace it brings to your soul,” Hardmeyer says, adding that she’s eager for more of this at regular Masses soon.
Command from God
Dan Tinquist describes his job at Triumph Lutheran Brethren in Moorhead as “leading people to God by singing his praises.”
“How do we provide for our people in this time in a way that will bless them but not endanger them?” he asks.
Despite current challenges, God’s provisions have come.
“We had enough people on our staff who are part of the worship team to pull off a fully recorded studio worship service from beginning to end every week,” he says. “God didn’t cause this (virus), but when God sees something coming in our future, he prepares us for that.”
Since lyrics can lift the soul in a way mere words can’t, worship through music is not only “a beautiful advantage,” Tinquist says, but also a responsibility.
“We are putting words in people’s mouths and they are singing them to God, so we have to be thoughtful and theologically accurate.”
To that end, his team has revived some tried-and-true songs and shared some newer creations that speak to people’s hearts in this time, including “The Well and the Way,” which he co-wrote with Isaac Erickson. The song recounts biblical stories of broken circumstances.
“When it seems there’s no way out, God meets these women and speaks grace and life into them.”
Tinquist says singing isn’t optional but a command from God.
“It’s not so much about what kinds of songs we’re singing, but that we get to sing — to have communion with the king of the universe.”
‘Tested and tried’
Across the river at First Lutheran Church in Fargo, Michael Olson, music liturgist, says that along with the preached word, music is crucial for our souls, and it’s needed now more than ever.
“We started out slowly, with everyone wearing face coverings,” he says of the return to in-person services July 5. “It was difficult to sing with masks, but we encouraged everyone to participate. People need to sing.”
Offering services by radio, cable and online streaming allows those who continue to worship from afar to stay connected, he says, but creating these remote experiences has brought challenges.
“You feed off people in the pews; we’re making music together,” Olson says. “When you do recordings of worship, there’s no give and take.”
Olson says that as people of God, we long for fellowship.
“We really do need each other,” he says, noting that he’s asked God often, “Lord, how long?”
“We’re being tested and tried every day, but I know God is behind everything, and he’s keeping us strong.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Sept. 11, 2020.]