The Presence of the Lord
Once a choral octavo has been published, it is almost impossible to know of its journey, unless someone "out there" relates the stories associated with the piece. One of the most interesting journeys of my music has been the inspirational path of The Presence of the Lord, (Lorenz 10/3640LA), related to me by Dr. Stephen Bolster, choral director at Berea College.
When I visited Dr. Stephen Bolster's choral rehearsal at Berea College, I was impressed with his students' work ethic, and I asked if I might write something for the choir to sing. He agreed, and I began looking for appropriate material for the composition. I really didn't need to look too far, as the founding principles of Berea College are truly amazing.
The college was founded by John G. Fee (an ardent abolitionist) in 1855, built on the convictions that every person is equal. He believed that every individual should be provided equal opportunity for education, regardless of race or socio-economic status. He set about trying to find a way to do just that, and most of his guiding principles are the cornerstones of the college today. For example, Fee valued the idea that students work for their education, and every student at Berea works at least ten hours a week at the college. They invest in their futures through working…there is no tuition fee charged at Berea College. Any student from the Appalachian area may apply, and acceptance is based on secondary school success and qualifying "need." Wonderful!
With the assistance of Rev. Kent Gilbert, I obtained texts containing words from speeches and sermons by John G. Fee. The words were beautiful, but I could not get them to come together for any reason. I worked and worked, deleting many files along the way. Until…the morning of the horrible events at Virginia Tech in 2007. As I watched the events unfold, my heart sank with every tragic bit of news…faces…stories of heroism…every sad fact shared by the media.
I came to my office, took a look at Fee's words, and the music flowed out as never before. I connected with what Fee had said, and I saw those words as the exact ones I might want to share with the entire Virginia Tech community. I realized long ago that my heart begins to heal through the process of writing music, and I looked at the words one…more…time. Finally, words came together:
When trials come, friends fail,
and the heavens appear as brass;
When earth appears as iron,
when all hope is gone,
hold on, stand still,
and you will see the face of God.
the Holy Presence, "Shekinah,"
will lead you across Jordan.
Hold on through the storm,
Our God will comfort and restore you.
The Presence of the Lord will go with you.
God will go before you, always watching o'er you.
You will see the face of God.
The Presence of the Lord will go with you.
Thus, The Presence of the Lord was born…
I almost completed the piece in one day…I felt it. I could never know what those parents, school officials, students, and others were feeling, but I could pray for the Presence of the Lord to be with all who remained. I sent a "progress report" to Stephen Bolster that day, just mentioning the fact that I had been incredibly moved by the horrible events. I told him the story of how the piece had come together, and them promptly forgot it. At the premiere performance, Stephen had written about how the piece was born...
It "so happened" that Stephen and his Berea College Concert Choir were on tour the next year (April, 2008), and were scheduled to perform at Blacksburg Baptist Church, near the Virginia Tech campus. Although it was nearing the one-year anniversary, Dr. Bolster had no idea as to how this church had been involved in that horrible day's events: the pastor of the church was the Police Department Chaplain - the person responsible for telling many of the parents their child was gone; many college students were faithful attenders in worship and activities, and some of those who lost their lives had been members of the church. None of these facts were known to Dr. Bolster at the time of this concert.
At the end of the performance, there was a long silence…tears were flowing from Dr. Bolster, the choir, and the audience…and then…there was astounding applause…there was an ovation…the longest ovation Dr. Bolster could ever remember...an ovation of thanks, connection, and appreciation for "remembering." I was reminded yet again as to why I am in this business…we all "do our jobs," but at some point, the universe connects us all in ways beyond our understanding. For these glorious moments, we offer our gratitude for the power of music...to heal…to make a difference.