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Praying for El Paso

Praying for El Paso

This past weekend, 22 people were murdered and dozens more seriously injured in a mass shooting that took place in El Paso, TX, the city where I live with my family and call home. The shooter was a lone gunman who traveled more than 600 miles to target and kill Hispanics in our city for fear of a “Hispanic invasion” of our country. The massacre took place at a local Walmart store on a Saturday morning, while people were buying groceries and families shopped for back-to-school supplies.

The shooter came from a Dallas suburb to do this evil deed, after having posted a hate-filled manifesto to his social media. The community was violated. Brutally, horribly violated in the worst possible way. A 15-year old high school sophomore, a young mother, her husband, a grandfather, a grandmother, and numerous others all with beautiful lives to live and loving families, all mowed down in an instant with bullets and a machine gun. While most of the victims were U.S. citizens, eight of them were actually Mexican citizens, not even from this country. They were not invading; they were going to go back home, to their own country, after shopping. This man wanted these people —who he did not know and who were not like him— to suffer, to pay the price of his anger and hatred, not knowing that they would have probably taken him in with profound kindness and compassion. That is the sad irony.

Border Reality

The community of El Paso is unique. It shares a border along the Rio Grande with the city of Ciudad Juárez in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. It is a peaceful, loving community. I can best describe the environment as insanely hospitable. Really! People routinely greet each other with kind, cordial (and actual!) dialogue: “Buen día, ¿cómo está?” or “Hola, ¿qué tal?” or “Con permiso, por favor, muy amable.” Children are regularly addressed as “mijo” and “mija” (“my son” and “my daughter”) by kind, though unrelated adults as an expression of care. There is a sense that if you were ever stranded and needed to knock on someone’s door for help, not only would you get that help, you’d probably get a fresh, hot, delicious meal and a place to stay for the night. This is a city of hospitality, warmth, and welcome, infused with a sense of family and neighborly love.

It’s especially hard for others in the U.S. to comprehend just what a safe place this border city is. You might ask, how can a city that shares its municipal and international boundary with one of the most notorious cities on earth, Ciudad Juárez, be so secure, when its neighbor is literally ravaged in crime and lawlessness? That’s the paradox, así es. To quote Bruce Hornsby, that’s just the way it is… in a good way. The violence to the South doesn’t spread across the border. El Paso reaps the benefits of a population that cherishes its peace and safety. The drug-driven activity of Ciudad Juarez remains over there or is transported to other U.S. cities with drug epidemics, bypassing El Paso, which is left largely untouched by these elements.

So much of the general population of El Paso is Hispanic, the great majority of Mexican descent. Spanish and Spanglish are primary languages alongside English for much of the population. Families share their lives on either side of the border. Tías, primos, abuelos, even padres may live on one side while children and other family members live on the other. They come and go from both sides, peacefully and as part of the daily way of life. They visit each other and celebrate cumpleaños, bautizos, bodas, or holidays as family. The economies are intertwined. Many El Pasoans —U.S. citizens—, make the daily commute to Ciudad Juárez to work in the sprawling auto supply manufacturing industry there; these are white-collar workers with engineering degrees. Likewise, many bright, talented young people from Mexico make the daily commute to the U.S. to attend the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). They pay their tuition like anyone else, enrolled as international students in this iconic institution of higher education. Afterward, they all return to their homes, whether on the U.S. or Mexican side, sometimes spending several hours in line to cross the 1/4-mile long, international bridge. That’s life here. And it is beautiful. And peaceful. And safe. 

And upsetting to those who fear difference. 

The particular store targeted by the shooter in El Paso was one that is but a few miles from the Mexican border. Mexican residents routinely shop at this Walmart because the selection of goods is greater and prices actually more affordable than what they can find in their own town. (Something you and I take for granted as we zip to the neighborhood market or superstore just minutes from our homes.) It’s worth the time and effort for them to go on an international journey just to do some routine shopping for household goods, clothes, and school supplies. 

Crosses and flowers at a makeshift memorial outside the Walmart store where 22 people were killed on August 3, 2019. (Photo credit: Edna Rocha)

Turning to Prayer

In the wake of the tragedy, prayer vigils and rallies were scheduled. Memorials and funds were set up. Immediately, the city and community came together to grieve, find strength and solace, vent anger, and pray. 

I provided the music at one impromptu diocesan-wide prayer service, hastily scheduled in the wake of the tragedy that same evening. I figured that plans were probably still up in the air with details. Sure enough, with such short notice and general city-wide chaos, the planners had not had a chance to think much beyond a time and location, so I came prepared to step in and ensure that music was part of whatever prayer took shape. I’m not even sure why I showed up, because all motions that day felt numbed; I only I knew that I needed to be at church in prayer with my community of faith and that we needed to sing.

Announced to begin at 7 pm, just 8 hours after the initial 911 calls were made, the community filed in that evening to St. Pius X church, quietly and still stunned. The beautiful church, where my wife and I were married, sits along the I-10 freeway, less than a mile from where the shootings took place. Fr. Michael Lewis, a native of El Paso and recently ordained, led a beautiful bilingual liturgy that both comforted and united all present through God’s Spirit and Word. We listened to readings, prayed our petitions, mustered strength to sing our grief, carried forth 20 candles for the deceased, and prayed a litany to the sacred heart of Jesus. The Gospel reading was from John 14: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, have faith [for] I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Media cameras clicked incessantly all throughout.

Fr. Mike’s preaching was impassioned, compelling, honest and raw. The disbelief and horror of the moment were still fresh on everyone’s mind. At one point he confessed to us all, “I’m barely holding it together here,” stating that afterward he was headed to the hospital to anoint the wounded survivors of the attack, some of whom might not survive. (Sure enough, two more victims were later added to the initial count of 20 deaths.) Yet, the principal message was one of love. Defiant love. Illogical, incredulous, unwithheld love in the face of hatred. Because God’s love will always overcome evil and violence, love was the key to unlocking our own comfort and healing. Powerful words. Tough message. Gospel truth.

Fr. Michael Lewis of the Diocese of El Paso leads a prayer service at St. Pius X church in the honor of the shooting victims.

Liturgy in Tragic Times

While strange to think of or somehow be focused on liturgy in the face of such unspeakable horror, I couldn’t help but be moved by the sight of this gathered assembly at the prayer service. It truly was the wounded, suffering body of Christ. As I entoned the opening strains of the hymn “You Are Mine” by composer David Haas, with its refrain that says “Do not be afraid, I am with you,” I heard the people singing. Emphatically, defiantly, gloriously singing. We were singing our sorrow, exasperation, confusion, and surrender that day. But we were also singing our faith, trust, gratitude and determination. As the document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship reminds us, “Our participation in the liturgy is challenging. Sometimes, our voices do not correspond to the convictions of our hearts. Other times, we are … preoccupied by the [troubles] of the world” [Sing to the Lord, 14]. But it is Christ himself, whose body was brutally wounded and weakened, who invites us —each of us, personally— “to enter into song, to rise above our own preoccupations, and to give our entire selves to the hymn of his Paschal Sacrifice for the honor and glory” of our triune God.

From my vantage point as the lone musician, I looked out on the faces of the assembly. Further contemplating the sad events of the day. I recalled the section from Sing to the Lord which states, “Because the gathered liturgical assembly forms one body, each of its members must shun ‘any appearance of individualism or division, keeping before their eyes that they have only one Father in heaven and accordingly are all brothers and sisters to each other’” [GIRM, 95, as quoted in STL, 35]. That rogue thought led directly to this next one: “Why, O God, could not these words have fallen onto the ears and into the hardened heart of this evil shooter? Could not, even for him, a change of heart have taken place if only love had been given a place to take hold?” My head hung in defeat.

But then I looked at what was before me. People from all around the city were gathered in prayer. No matter our individual race, culture, language, or other external difference — we were and will continue to be brothers and sisters to each other with one Father in heaven. In this truth was revealed God’s grace. Amidst the profound sadness, a small but knowing smile formed.

To close the service, I led the well-known song in Spanish based on psalm 116, “Caminaré en presencia del Señor.” People sang with fervor, wanting their voice heard. With its verses that speak of anguish, sorrow, and falling into the snares of death, the refrain rang forth each time professing that we, together as the beautiful, multicultural and ever-hospitable community of El Paso, will indeed choose to walk in the presence of the Lord, in the land of the living. 

And our light will shine forth in the darkness.

For we are #ElPasoStrong.

Photo credit: Edna Rocha

Let the church sing Amen! ¡Que cantemos Amén!

If you would like to give to the victims’ fund: please visit:

If you would like to give to Annunciation House, which shows El Paso’s ongoing hospitality through its care and welcome for refugees and migrants:

50-50… What Makes a Liturgy Bilingual?

50-50… What Makes a Liturgy Bilingual?

Welcome back! Bienvenidos de nuevo a ¡Cantemos Amén!

I saw a post awhile back on a pastoral musicians’ forum that caught my eye. Music directors were responding to a question posed by a colleague about how much English versus Spanish there should be in a bilingual liturgy. Several responded, rather matter-of-factly, that the obvious answer is that it should be “50-50” — that is, equal parts English and Spanish. This got me thinking…

What makes a liturgy bilingual?

I’ve attended, prepared, or ministered at dozens, possibly hundreds of bilingual liturgies over the years, including outside of eucharist. One thing that struck me was that the most successful and memorable celebrations, at least in my mind, were not necessarily “equal parts” Spanish and English. In fact, they didn’t even carry with them a sense of quantitative measure or ratio, but simply “felt” right. 

Perhaps this aspiration toward balance should be a question of “what does it feel like in prayer” more so than “what does it look like on paper.”

From my perspective both as a pew prayer-er and as a liturgy preparer, a bilingual mass cannot be measured in terms of percentage or quantity of texts at play, nor should it. Merely “dividing up” the liturgy to meet an arbitrary benchmark demotes the ritual to the level of a commodity, like something to be parceled off or “distributed” at the discretion of those who wield such power (the image of casting lots comes to mind). To put an artificial quantifier on the “degree of bilingualness” as the desired measure in itself misses the point. I would caution against framing our sacred mysteries in such simplistic terms. 

On the contrary, I’d suggest that a bilingual mass is any in which a good faith effort is made to draw the communities at hand into the sacred mysteries by virtue of not just the language employed, but the experience in real time — via the visuals, sincerity and warmth of expression, the sounds, melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythms, tempo, vocal style and delivery, etc. These all play a part in making one feel at home in prayerIn essence, we should be talking about facilitating a bicultural experience of prayer, not merely a linguistic fulfilling of the rite’s texts and rubrics.

Variation in Application

A bilingual mass might include (but is not limited to), mass texts and readings in varying languages, a homily skillfully rendered in a way that is seamlessly woven through intertwining narratives, music selections that are both bilingual and monolingual, musical arrangements and playing that touch the heart beyond lyrics, and visual elements such as worship aids or projection that play a practical role while lending a sensory counterweight to aural elements. Above all, a successful bilingual mass exudes a profound level of hospitality at every corner.

For some communities, a bilingual mass might see some of the spoken mass texts and preaching done bilingually, but the music entirely in Spanish. In other communities, you might find the spoken texts mostly in Spanish, but the music more bilingual-minded, even including English-only songs. Still other communities might incorporate some different blend of linguistic treatment as their norm. In communities with immigrant populations, the primary language of the community may be Spanish, but the presence of younger generations may introduce some openness to English throughout. Conversely, the desire among Latinos to want to connect with their heritage, including its “sound,” may drive English-speaking Latinos (even non-Spanish-speaking ones) to attend a mass that is Spanish-leaning in text and/or character.

Recall that the church already gifts us with vocabulary that transcends culture. The words “Alleluia” and “Amen,” preserved and handed down from their Hebrew origins, are inherently multicultural to begin with. Additionally, creative use of the original Latin (or sometimes Greek) language of our Roman rite in bilingual liturgies can also be a unifying means amidst our diversity.

Attention to Context

Context is also a factor. Attuned to the pastoral judgment in the document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, certain types of musical pieces and/or linguistic treatments might work better in some celebrations than in others. In a diocesan-level liturgy, for example, where the use of strophic hymns might be normally expected, singing some of those hymns’ stanzas in Spanish might be effective — that is, for “the actual community gathered to celebrate in a particular place at a particular time” (STL, 130). Especially since there now exists good, poetic translations of English-language hymns (thanks, in great part, to our protestant brothers and sisters), inclusion of such a translated hymn could be meaningful and appropriate to either language group. A tune like “Hymn to Joy” comes to mind, whose melody is recognized across English-speaking and Latin America. This same piece or treatment, however, might not be as applicable for a Sunday liturgy at a parish where hymnody is seldom used or whose communal expectation is for more recently-composed Spanish or bilingual selections.

Music planners must also be attentive to the linguistic treatment of the mass ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Alleluia, Sanctus, etc.) and responsorial psalm as central to the experience of bicultural prayer.

All Bilingual, All the Time?

An important piece of advice is not to presume that just because a celebration is labeled bilingual, all of the music selections must therefore be bilingual, too. Bear in mind that the bilingual repertoire published in the last few decades serves a valuable purpose, but these compositions are meant to supplement, not supplant, the vast treasury of sacred music each culture has to offer. An overall design to the “flow” of language elements, whether monolingual or bilingual, is more important to the effectiveness of the prayer than is a de facto application of newly-composed bilingual music. 

Bilingual liturgies could and should include a variety of genres and instrumentations, from classical to chant to folkloric and contemporary. A myriad of styles and musical forms exists within both the English-language and Spanish-language repertoire. These are to be explored and applied with the understanding that music speaks in a way that words alone cannot. The power of music on the ears of the faithful to uplift and transport them to a place of “at home” is difficult to define but cannot be denied. When extrapolated in creative ways, this thinking could invite a polyphonic motet in Spanish alongside a huapango in English! An open mind to this reality counters the misinformed but oft-prevalent thinking among well-intentioned planners that Hispanic music must always be mariachi style.

Key Resources

Many of these observations may resonate with your own experience or approach. Or not. The premises upon which these observations are based could be vastly different from what you see as your reality. That’s the nature of this ministry. We’re all still discovering, from the trenches on up through the hierarchy. Note that the U.S. Bishops now offer Guidelines for a Multilingual Celebration of Mass on their website. These are generally accepted as good starting points by liturgy planners, but, in the absence of official mandate, cannot viewed as definitive (nor should they be, given the ever-evolving nature of multicultural worship and perils of a one-size-fits-all approach). Of the little academic work that has been done in this field, special mention should be given to the resource Liturgy in a Culturally Diverse Community: A Guide by Rev. Mark Francis (published by the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions), the successor to his earlier, pioneering Multicultural Celebrations: A Guide. This was the first resource in the U.S. to really frame the issues and offer practical solutions, laying the groundwork for practitioners such as you and me.

In closing, I contend that a bilingual liturgy is one that is planned and executed with good intentions, and that has the net effect of welcome. The point is not to subject the participants to some kind of forced, awkward linguistic handshake, but rather that the unity gained by partaking of another’s expression of prayer far surpasses that which is lost by giving up the momentary comfort of one’s native tongue.

¡Que cantemos Amén! Let the church sing Amen!

Welcome • Bienvenidos a ¡Cantemos Amén!

Welcome • Bienvenidos a ¡Cantemos Amén!

Musings in Hispanic Music Ministry

Welcome! ¡Bienvenidos! These days, there’s many excellent forums to be found on the topic of Hispanic music ministry. There’s also many wonderful minds contributing to the important dialogue on liturgical music and bilingual liturgy. What a privilege to add my voice to theirs… though it is only one among many who are collectively trying to find our way in this new reality. 

My own ministerial journey, which began over three decades ago, has taken me from suburban Detroit “folk” masses to inner-city Spanish masses in Chicago, from diocesan liturgies in borderland Texas to impressive large-scale gatherings in cathedrals, arenas, stadiums, and conference ballrooms across the country. This blessed adventure even includes unexpected involvement in papal visits and saintly celebrations. I’ve seen so much along the way, not to mention the unique perspective I’m afforded by the editor’s desk where I sit. But in the scheme of things, I also realize I’ve seen very little. There’s so much more “out there.” 

LEFT: Holy Cross Church in Chicago, IL, where I led music for years in a predominantly Mexican-American community. • RIGHT: The El Paso Diocesan Choir at the Sun Bowl Stadium during the 2016 papal visit to the U.S.-Mexico border.

For that reason, I’m the first to admit I don’t have all the answers. There’s a part of me that questions regularly if I really know what I’m doing at all. In all honestly, I don’t. I can’t. And I would venture that none of us in this field could legitimately call ourselves “experts.” Bilingual music and liturgy as we know it in this country is a relatively new phenomenon. We are still foraying unknown waters, making new discoveries, and trying new approaches. Years ahead, we’ll look back on this period and, with the benefit of hindsight, affirm what we got right and reject or revise that which we didn’t. When it comes to bilingual music and liturgy, we still find ourselves in a time of trial and error, with the latter expectedly in abundance. 

As I always preface in my workshops, there does not yet exist a higher institution of learning doctorate degree in bilingual liturgy or multilingual liturgical music; there are no individuals out there with a Ph.D. in this field (that I know of) to serve as authoritative experts on such things. I, like many of my colleagues doing this work, am simply a practitioner who has amassed some wisdom in pastoral experience, but who is also very much still learning and open to new discoveries and discourse. 

There’s astoundingly so much to explore when it comes to bilingual Spanish-English liturgy. For some communities, the very notion of attempting to meld languages in a liturgical context is a source of anxiety and trepidation. For others, it’s simply second nature. Wherever you find yourself on the spectrum of parish bilingualism, know that in ¡Cantemos Amén!you have a page that seeks to equip you with pastoral insights to help you better engage in this ministry. 

For my part, every time I see what’s being done in a different corner of this ministerial world, it keeps me yearning for more. I relish the opportunity to reflect on it all within these pages. So when it comes to matters concerning this exciting world of Hispanic music ministry, I look forward to journeying this path with you, my fellow ministers, filled with wonder and fervor for God’s amazing works.

Hasta pronto…  till next time… 

¡Que cantemos Amén! Let the church sing Amen!

Why Do We Sing?

By: Diana Kodner Gokce

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