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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Amerena

Music Ministry Alive

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

If I close my eyes I can still hear the four part harmony. An almost perfect sound; angelic even. I can picture the college campus, those familiar sights now etched in my memory forever. MMA was my home. It was an escape from my classmates who teased me in secret. MMA was my saving grace. The people I met were like family and they all have touched my life in some way, changing me into the person I am today.

I remember pulling up to the dorm entrance that first year. The small brick was tucked away neatly behind well trimmed bushes and trees. A bright neon pink sign on the overhang, “Welcome to Music Ministry Alive (MMA) St. Catherine’s College, St. Paul Minnesota”. I had been anxious about this moment for quite some time. Getting an acceptance letter into MMA was better than my acceptance into Endicott college. It was the first time I felt accomplished as a musician. I had been picked among the best in the US and now I was finally here. My excitement was like an electrical current through my body as I walked through the double doors into the dorms.

On the first night of camp we had an opening ceremony. Approximately 200 people, students and staff, gathered in the center of the university’s main building. Each student was assigned to one of four floors which resembled something like a balcony in the center, surrounded by wooden railings. On the ground floor there was one student holding a bible standing next to the priest, Father Ray East, a pastor so filled with life that it was infectious. He was an inspiration in both heart and soul. The founder of the camp, and popular composer, David Haas walked into the middle of the bottom floor and looked up. Everyone was suddenly quiet, and I felt as though I was in the presence of a celebrity. He held up his hands to conduct, and said something I wasn’t able to hear. However, the beautiful sound that came next was very audible. Two hundred people, two hundred strangers, joined together in one song; “Song of the Body of Christ”. I had heard this song several times before, but never like this. The voices blended perfectly, as if they were meant to. Harmony came so naturally, that you could swear it was rehearsed many times before. Suddenly the people around weren’t strangers to me anymore. My mind flashed back to the greetings I got earlier that day. Several other students were blowing bubbles and hugging every person who walked by like a friend they hadn’t seen in years. A friend of mine, Concetta, described the greetings at a meeting once: “Hi. I love you. You’re my best friend. What’s your name?” This place, these people were out of the ordinary. I could already feel a change in me. A change I’d been waiting for.

Entering the ballroom in which we held daily prayer services, we took off our shoes at the door. We were walking on Holy ground and we respected it as such. The percussion section began to play an upbeat song, one I had come to recognize as sort of a theme song, Nzamuranza. At first it sounded like something out of the Lion King, but its joyful call and response chant filled the room with a tangible energy and spirit. Congas, djembes and various shakers and bells kept the rhythm smooth. Liturgical dancers swayed in time with the beat and other campers raised their hands in worship. The night was full of music, prayer and celebration.

Part of the full schedule for MMA included peer groups. These groups consisted of several students where you would discuss a topic based off that morning’s prayer service. The first time I walked into the group my hands were shaking and my stomach twisted in a knot. I was not good in groups. Whenever I tried to speak my voice would crack and my breathing would become erratic. In school, I begged the teachers to let me work alone. My heart pounded loud in my ears as the rest of the kids filed in. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. They were all understanding and could tell I was shy from the minute I opened my mouth. But I noticed I became more comfortable with them later in the week. The peer groups had helped me the most. I got the chance to talk to people I didn’t know well and learn so much about them. I was able to test my social limits and I would push myself to join in the discussions. The stories my group had told were very different from the ones my friends back home had. These stories made me think about my life personally. They made me question the way I presented myself to others. I realized that although I may have been fooling everyone else, I wasn’t fooling myself. I knew who I was but for some reason I still hid who I was. Maybe I was afraid that people would criticize me. But whatever the reason was, I knew I had to change; and I did. If there was someone I didn’t know I would introduce myself and start up a conversation. But it was only the beginning.

Throughout the week I also found myself confiding in them. I would tell them things I had never told anyone. We would talk endlessly about what was going on in our lives or whatever stupid topics would come into our minds. I had never been able to talk to people like this before. I was already breaking the mold I had set for myself.

If I was to compare all the times I had been there, I would have to say that the first two years would seem like they were more about fun than anything else. I may have been differently socially but I was still insecure with myself. Before the third year started I made a promise to myself. A promise to gain the confidence I was missing, and, most importantly, a promise to change the way I thought of myself. It was evident that the third year would be different. And I could tell right away. In fact, it all started when I got out of the car that first morning. It was as if someone else took my place. Standing near the front of the dorms was a group of my friends. When they heard the car pull up and saw me get out they immediately ran over. We were jumping up and down. I was so happy to see them all I was laughing. We said hello with what became the official greeting of MMA: hugging. The way I acted was different and my friends noticed right away. My friend and roommate, Becky said, “You know, you have changed so much as a person since I met you.”

I got to my peer group early. I sat on one of the couches in the lounge. To my surprise, over all, I felt calm. I smiled to myself as the rest of the group joined me. Most of them were first years, except for the leader who also a third year like I was. We went around the room, telling everyone about ourselves. Where we were from, what we did in church, and anything else we felt like sharing. I was one of the last ones to speak. I took a deep breath expecting my breathing to pick up its pace. As I spoke I felt the fluidity of my sentences as they came out. The nerves that were usually present were now absent entirely. There wasn’t even one crack in my voice. I told them, “I’m actually kind of shy.” However, it turned out that I was the exact opposite.

I remember that after that year, I had sat in front of my mirror, for the first time in a long time, when I got home. My eyes scanned my face. I noticed things I hadn’t before; like the color of my eyes, my smile and the exact color of my skin. It was as if I had been blind for the first sixteen years of my life and somehow I was healed. My insecurities had vanished, almost as if they had never existed before. I felt confident. It made me laugh to think that I had never seen it before. This is what other people saw when they looked at me. My mind flashed back to the conversations I had with Becky throughout the week. At one time she mentioned how her third year was unlike any other year at MMA: “This is my 3rd year, and I have loved every year here. But this year was very different compared to the last 2 years. Yes, I went out and talked to others and made friends, but I felt that others were taking away more of an experience then I was. As if I was missing some part of the big picture. And this year it finally hit me, I began to listen. I listened not only to what everyone said, but what they didn't say. And the wisdom, the unique wisdom that we all have here is so strong and it is truly gorgeous.” It was true, and I couldn’t believe it took me so long to realize how right she was. I was just like Becky in some ways. All I had to do was listen not only to others but to my heart; where the unspoken words meant so much more. I looked back at the mirror and took an even closer look. I guess to everyone else I didn’t look very different, although many people mentioned how I acted different. They referred to me as “the new Danielle”. To them I may have been this new Danielle, but, in my mind I was finally being honest with myself. I was being the person who was stuck inside of me for the longest time. The one I’d known for a while; who I really was.

My relationships with the kids I had met at the beginning of my three year journey grew. The bonds became unbreakable. To this day,over ten years later, we still speak. I have friends in almost every state. We traded phone numbers and emails. I could never lose contact with them, for they had become another family. They were my healers.

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