Following the example of workshop presenter ValLimar Jansen, attendees were inspired to add movement to the songs they sang. (Catholic Herald photo by Mary Grieco)

Mary Grieco
Special to the Catholic Herald

“Music is an exquisite gift that God bestows on all people to help bring about unity in the Body of Christ.” That was one of the many inspirational messages given by ValLimar Jansen as she led the 14th Annual Music Ministry Retreat and Workshop Feb. 7-8 at Holy Family Church in Woodruff.

Jansen is an internationally known singer, composer and performer whose strong faith shined through as she challenged music ministers from throughout the diocese to be servant leaders.

“The primary choir is the congregation,” she said. “You are the servant choir. You are there to serve the needs of the primary choir.”

Throughout the workshop, Jansen emphasized that getting the entire assembly to sing should be the goal of all music ministers. “We need to sing songs that force the assembly to respond. Let us not accept a feeble response. We have to believe that the people of God will sing if they are led well.”

Among the approximately 100 music ministers in attendance was Janelle Sutherland, who made the three-and-a-half hour trip with several of her fellow musicians from St. Anne Parish in Somerset. Sutherland has been involved in music ministry for 50 years, and she looks forward to implementing ideas presented at this workshop to “make our congregation be much more a part of the singing.”
Jansen is not a presenter who stoically stands behind a podium throughout her talks. To her, music involves moving the entire body. She often had attendees on their feet and leaving their seats to engage with each other.

Mixed with her messages relating to music, she donned various colorful garbs, and with passion sprinkled with humor, she took on the roles of women in the Bible, including Martha and the Woman at the Well. As a performer, Jansen has several one-act plays to her credit, one of them about Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA, an African-American nun being considered for canonization. Jansen said she frequently draws inspiration from her own African heritage.

“So many times we have to help people understand why we are singing what we are singing,” she said. “We have to teach and re-teach.” She gave the example of the familiar campfire song “Kumbaya.” She explained that it originated with African slaves who were singing “Come By Here” as a code to signal the arrival of the Underground Railroad which would lead some of them to freedom.

Jansen spoke of the universality of music. “The first rhythm is the sound of our heart in our mother’s womb,” she said. “We have this beat that unites all of us. That is our universal percussion section.”

Although music unites everyone, she stressed the value in exploring new music, including liturgically appropriate songs that appeal to youth. “Sometimes we need to be open to songs we don’t necessary like,” she said. “It is not about you. It is about God working through you as a vessel.”

Some attendees looked surprised when Jansen said, “Rehearsal is not a time for practice.” Practicing should be done at home, she said, so that everyone knows the music when it comes time to rehearse with the group.

Above all, Jansen emphasized music ministers must live a life of prayer and be pastoral, both in church and in their broader communities. “What we must do every day is dedicate some time to God,” she said, “and whatever else we do should lead us back to the table and having the experience of the breaking of the bread.”

Wherever Jansen travels, she invites local musicians to accompany her songs. This event was no exception, as Mary Ament, of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Merrill; Jan Huseby, of St. Mary Parish in Tomahawk; and Holly Spiegelhoff, of Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Rhinelander; took turns at the piano.

“Once again, our music ministers were enriched by the gifts of another superb Catholic artist,” Huseby said. “ValLimar definitely flexed our musical muscles. Her unique style and phenomenal talent shaped an uplifting experience of faith, humor, sincerity, joy and hope.”

Presentations on Sr. Thea Bowman

Sr. Marla Lang, FSPA, is available to give presentations to youth and adults on the life of Sr. Thea Bowman, FSPA, who has been recommended for canonization by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Her life addressed the challenges of poverty and racism nationally and beyond. Lang can be reached at Marywood Spirituality Center, 715-385-3750.