This was a remarkably invigorating, inspiring, and humbling conversation with Dr. Ahmed Anzaldúa, Founder and Artistic Director of Border CrosSing, and Director of Music Ministries at Unity Church in St. Paul, a congregation with a robust music program including four adult choirs, children’s choir, and an annual musical.
In the initial months of COVID, Dr. Anzaldúa’s main task as a church musician was to determine how worship was going to happen. The focus was on music in the entire worship experience and new structures that hadn’t been in place (such as determining the new duties for the music staff). Choirs met over Zoom. Dr. Anzaldúa thought they might keep their original programming, but soon realized that wouldn’t work. They did different projects, virtual choirs, discussion groups, Yoga, and hosted guest speakers. His main concern was getting everybody connected. As vaccines became available, some singers returned to sing with other vaccinated members, with optional Zoom rehearsals. This fall, they fully reopened with mask and vaccine requirements. Since musicians need to assess their own levels of risk, Zoom will remain an option for some things. Dr. Anzaldúa emphasized that it is important to continue to create as much access as possible. In music ministry, it is important not to forget the ministry part.
In the way of “silver lining,” building community over Zoom created a closeness within the choir that would have normally taken years to achieve. Ironically, Dr. Anzaldúa has spent more time with his choirs online than in-person, having started at Unity Church in September 2019. In addition to relationship building, they explored music they may not have explored if not for COVID. His favorite piece was one they commissioned from Abbie Betinis called “what if you slept”, a piece full of experimentation written to be performed with a virtual choir. Conversely, Dr. Anzaldúa has not enjoyed making community health decisions. Many choral professionals have had to create policies and safety protocols for ensembles, and these risk mitigation strategies have often been adopted by our entire communities. He found himself in the unenviable position of having to say no to outside requests or remind guests to keep their masks on. Also, Dr. Anzaldúa adds, he would be happy if he never edits another video, although he understands it’s been meaningful.
The past year and a half has come with multi-layered discussions. The church is committed to social justice and equity, and with this commitment can come uncomfortable conversations; many conversations have went beyond singing and vocal warm-ups. He recognizes that church spaces lend themselves to conversations that don’t always happen in an educational setting. When there is something problematic, you have to attend to it, or the community lives with that issue until it is addressed.
Dr. Anzaldúa is heavily involved in ADEI work, and has had a big role in shaping important projects such as the Justice Choir. When asked about equity, he affirms its centrality, and goes further, challenging how we often think of ADEI. Equity, he points out, is not a separate thing. “What’s the alternative?” he asks. Are choirs singing without thinking about equity/access? If one is not thinking about equity or access, are they living their life and doing their work without thinking about how it affects others? When it comes to our work in the choral world, Dr. Anzaldúa hopes that equity is so central to our work that it becomes integrated, not a separate pillar. Thinking of others, being empathetic, treating others with respect are all examples of equitable practices. “Those are things we can all get behind,” he states.
“We all have our limitations,” Dr. Anzaldúa comments, going on to say that we are all working in systems that are structurally racist, and we can’t take what we do out of that context. One example he gives: In some school districts, teachers may lose their job or face discipline for speaking out on some topics. He understands that people can be hesitant to be vocal, often for these reasons. It varies from person-to-person. He would wish that people that have opportunity to push back use those opportunities.
“For any justice work,” Dr. Anzaldúa said, “there has to be relationship work. Without relationship, it’s charity.” When we discuss equity work, it comes down to relationship. What’s the relationship you have with your singers, administrators, community? More importantly, what relationships are missing? Are the systems in place, whether previously designed or created you, preventing relationships with people in your space and community? What are your relationships and what are the quality of your relationships? Even social justice-minded people can be unsure of how to respond or who to engage when confronted with a social-justice issue. He has seen that happen in organizations as well. A lot of organizations realized they didn’t have a relationship that would allow them to reach out to a community. It’s important to do authentic outreach, and whether this is in an organization or community, it requires establishing relationships.