ST. PAUL, Minnesota — After creating an interfaith choir to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation at the Vatican in 2018, the Together in Hope Project choir has a new choral project that explores major faiths’ traditions of welcoming the refugee, immigrant and outcast.
“The Stranger,” which had its U.S. premiere Oct. 15 and 16 in St. Paul, draws on Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu texts.
The musical project’s text was created by Gary Aamodt and Celia Ellingson, Together in Hope Project’s 2017 co-founders and Twin Cities residents.
The husband-and-wife team drew from first-person immigrant poetry and religious texts, including the work of Brigidine Sister Mary Patricia Mulhall of Windsor, England, whose outreach has focused on human trafficking victims.
In “The Stranger,” the choir sings her words: Fears on the faces of those women,/men and children/frightened of the past/fearful of the future/Will no one understand their pain?/Will anyone open a door to receive/them?
“It’s a very basic human message that we all belong, we’re all here, we all have something to contribute and we all share many of the same desires,” Aamodt said.
Following the Together in Hope Project’s Vatican concert, which was attended by Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Bishop Ann Svennungsen of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Minneapolis Area Synod.
Aamodt and Ellingson reached out to the two faith leaders for ideas on their next project. Independently of one another, Hebda and Svennungsen each suggested the plight of refugees and immigrants, the couple said.
Aamodt, 84, and Ellingson, 72, who are Lutheran, see a connection between the Vatican project, which celebrated recent efforts toward mutual understanding by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, and the challenges presented worldwide by widespread immigration and refugee crises, most recently among people fleeing the war in Ukraine.
“We describe ourselves as doing music with a purpose. And the purpose is raising awareness, promoting healing and reconciliation, whatever it looks like in the context of that issue, and frankly, activating people to do the right thing,” Ellingson told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“The common thread is using the platform of music to try to do that in a different way, because we believe music touches people in a way that words alone can’t,” she said.
“The Stranger” was composed by Kim André Arnesen, and the piece premiered July 28 in his hometown, Trondheim, Norway, during the opening concert of the Trondheim International Olavsfest. It was well received, Aamodt said.
“The powerful thing is that all the major religions in the world, all of them, have a very, very strong ethic of welcoming the stranger,” he said. “I think that’s news to people, and it’s enlightening to people, and … a very powerful and unified message when you really dig into that.”
The Together in Hope choir has more than 50 members, many of whom participated in the 2018 Vatican performance. Among them are several Catholics.
Choir member Amanda Laugerman, 44, was raised Lutheran but now worships at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, which is how she encountered the Together in Hope Project and joined it before its 2018 Vatican concert.
“Music just speaks to the heart of everyone,” she said. “It’s a universal language.”
Laugerman said that as someone who has experienced both Lutheran and Catholic worship, the focus of the first project, Christian reconciliation, was “near and dear to my heart,” and that “The Stranger” feels related to the first theme.
“Christians have more in common than we have in difference, and people from other cultures, refugees, we have more in common than we have different,” she said. “It was a natural outgrowth of that first project and really spoke to personally how I feel about living out my Christian faith.”
“The Stranger” project was created in partnership with USA for UNHCR, the U.N. Refugee Agency. The U.S. group assists the agency in providing material and medical assistance to refugees around the world. According to UNHCR, as of the end of 2021, there were 89.2 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.
Ahead of the choral work’s premiere, Aamodt and Ellingson said they invited representatives from newer immigrant or refugee communities in the Twin Cities to attend the performance.
They saw it as a “an occasion for bringing people together from various backgrounds,” including ”folks who have lived that refugee-immigrant experience and those whose families lived it long ago, before they got to this state, since we all came from somewhere else,” Ellingson said.
Wiering is former editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.