When I became principal at Socorro High School in El Paso, there were 1,660 students housed on a campus designed for half that many--I don’t remember how many portable classrooms there were. When it was decided to expand the facilities the superintendent held out for first class all the way. “We are not going to continue to be seen as a no-account minority school on the Mexico border,” he declared.
State-of-the-art science labs, vocational shops, classrooms, offices, athletic, and fine arts facilities became realities along with the most comprehensive high tech library in the area. After four years as principal, the student body had doubled in number to 3,200 students. Upon completion of the fine arts complex I applied for and was awarded the position of Director of Fine Arts for the school district. I coordinated activities for the bands, orchestras, choirs, dance groups, art, and I managed the fine arts complex itself. That included a 1,234-seat theatre, a “black box theatre”, a band/recital hall, an orchestra room, a dance studio, classrooms and a television production and recording facility.
I obtained certification as a facilities manager and determined that our beautiful theatre would not lie idle when it was not being used by the students. As a result we were able to schedule renowned groups performing ballet, ballroom dance, folklorico, “The President’s Own Marine Band,” opera, mariachi contests, talent shows and etc. The Center for the Performing Arts became the “pride of the lower valley.”
An officer of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (which no longer exists) requested the use of our theatre for a Church Choir Festival. I offered to help organize the activity as a way to bring together that segment of our community. That was back in the days when you didn’t have to worry about offending someone by recognizing the existence of religion.
Invitations went out to the various denominations in the area to provide choirs that would represent their music traditions. I was disappointed at the initial response and wondered why there did not seem to be more interest on the part of the major churches. We did get enough interest, however, to hold several planning meetings. Present were ministers from a Catholic Church, a Presbyterian Church, a black Baptist church, a Methodist Church, a couple of Evangelical and Community churches, the “Mormon” church and a Jewish synagogue. There was enthusiasm and yet a certain reticence that I failed to understand.
The festival proceeded and was a great success, albeit not as big as I thought it could have been. It included Gregorian chants, a Jewish cantor, good old gospel favorites sung with rhythm, classical numbers from the masters, and a Mormon children’s choir singing a medley of gospel and patriotic hymns. It wasn’t until it was all over that I discovered the reason for the reluctance of some congregations to participate—money.
In my church everyone is an unpaid volunteer including pianists, organists and choristers and I have to admit that we probably do not get the technical quality of Sunday music that many other churches enjoy. It was a revelation to me that in many other congregations the people charged with providing the music were paid. Participation in a choral festival was not likely to be included in the budget.
I think we often go through life measuring others by our own narrow view, not fully understanding their motives and passions. The poet Thomas Bracken wrote:
“Not understanding. We move along asunder, our paths grow wider as the seasons creep along the years; we marvel and we wonder why life is life, and then we fall asleep, not understood. We gather false impressions and hug them closer as the years go by, ‘til virtues often seem to us transgressions; and thus men rise and fall and live and die, not understood.
“Poor souls with stunted vision oft measure giants by their narrow gauge. The poisoned shafts of falsehood and derision are oft impelled ‘gainst those who mould the age, not understood. The secret springs of action, which lie beneath the surface and the show, are disregarded; with self-satisfaction we judge our neighbors as they often go, not understood.
“How trifles often change us. The thoughtless sentence or the fancied slight destroys long years of friendships, and estranges us, and on our souls there falls a freezing blight: not understood. How many breasts are aching, for lack of sympathy? Ah! day to day, how many hearts are breaking! How many noble spirits pass away, not understood.
“O God, that men would see a little clearer, or judge less harshly where they cannot see! O God, that men would draw a little nearer to one another! They’d be nearer Thee and understood.”
The choir festival brought new understanding to me. Perhaps there should be more of them.