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Op-eds, Opinions

A message from the Chaplain: Upholding community through song

By
Op-ed contributor
Monday, March 30, 2020

More a love letter than an op-ed, I write with a deep April heartache for beloved, far-flung Brunonia and a suffering world. Everywhere, everything has changed. College Hill is now oddly quiet, despite a loud riot of daffodils and magnolias defiantly gathered to bloom. 

Suddenly dispersed, we are broadcasters, frontline reporters and those seeking refuge in myriad virus epicenters. Tucked inside our necklines is a metaphoric locket holding beloved portraits, our many identities and homes, a composite of an aching global landscape. Our fingers search nervously for the locket’s clasp, and perhaps we laugh out loud at the tiny replica of Brown’s beloved Blueno, light on, holding the locket’s chain tight.  We Brunonians all don such metaphorical jewelry — keeping us together at heart. 

Step carefully, dear heart. Strong cords of concern, endeavor and friendship anchored securely in the Main Green of Brown’s heart are outreaching, vibrating with commitment, affection, worry, imagination. Through Zoom, Google Chat, FaceTime and WhatsApp our faces and voices stream — bearing algorithms, edits, research results, recipes and warm, wise counsel. Work, friendship, love and commitment flow across the wires of our virtual acrobatics. Early awkwardness and brittle Wi-Fi will yet open new ways to continue to be “Ever True” to Brown, even amidst this unwelcome season of COVID-19. 

We quietly acknowledge our fears. Our hearts are also filled with worry and sorrow for all that is unfolding. We pray that this virus and its enormous devastation will someday be history — but that time is not yet here. Heroic medical teams astonish us and we pray for them. But mostly our responsibilities seem prosaic — far from anything historic or heroic.  Wait; stay home; refrain. Can this be right? Couldn’t we do this better, together?

 In this tumultuous time, our burdened hearts find comfort in the steadfast support of our community. We are still together, joined by much more than shared physical space, though surely College Hill yearns to welcome us again very soon. 

For now, I propose that we sing together. The power of music and song, especially in Italy and Spain, has been very moving, as they too strive to endure this pandemic. Perhaps a few tunes have been encouraging you? Lately the 1980s Hall and Oates dance tune “You Make My Dreams” has been blaring in my car, followed by Ella Fitzgerald or the classics. 

Can Brown’s beloved “Alma Mater” become our shared torch song for this tough season? I realize that my proposal of turning to Brunonia’s anthem may be unlikely at best and even humorous to others. This piece is neither an obvious choice nor is it easy to sing. It certainly offers no beat for dancing. But its history and lyrics prompt my proposal to reclaim it. Humor me. Take up this challenge and at the very least we will definitely sound much better in September at Convocation. (Class of 2024: Join in. Plan to arrive on College Hill with rare capacity — the ability to sing Brown’s “Alma Mater.”)

Martha Mitchell’s “Encyclopedia Brunonia” reports that: “The Alma Mater made its first appearance in The Brown Paper of 1860 (which for some reason was that year entitled The Brunonian). James Andrews DeWolf ’1861 had been appointed Psi Upsilon’s editor for the paper and had been urged to write a poem.” He wrote in a deeply uncertain time. The Civil War loomed and the nation’s volatile rancor over abolition was hitting a boiling point, one that turned the country inside out and against itself. Our moral and literal survival as a nation hung in the balance, as DeWolf, a junior in the College, wrote his everlasting lyric for a hymn tune: “Araby’s Daughter,” apparently, already a familiar favorite on College Hill. 

 Alma Mater! We hail thee with loyal devotion,

And bring to thine altar our off’ring of praise;

Our hearts swell within us, with joyful emotion,

As the name of Old Brown in loud chorus we raise…

The happiest moments of youth’s fleeting hours,

We’ve passed, ’neath the shade of these time-honored walls,

And sorrows as transient as April’s brief showers,

Have clouded our life in Brunonia’s halls …

Youthful happiness and imminent sorrow are explicit. DeWolf’s assertion that the latter will be transient — like April’s “brief” rain showers makes me think that April weather in Providence in DeWolf’s time must have been different than ours. (Many damp spring weekends come to mind as I write.) While we cannot know how long our April showers will last, we can find some solace in song and in each other as we weather them.

So why suggest this awkward song as our anthem for COVID-19? Primarily, because it belongs to us. And singing it together, however badly, calls to mind our cherished Brown community and our authentic place within it. Surely, few other than us even know it. 

Across the centuries, we arrived at Brown by profoundly different paths of privilege and privation. Now, carefully, importantly, we each hold a place in the heart of Brown and in the hearts of all who call Brown “alma mater.” May the history of this difficult season record that we loved each other well and that we got much better at singing together, quietly, loudly, as one — Brown. 

Reverend Janet M. Cooper Nelson is Chaplain of the University. She can be reached at janet_cooper-nelson@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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3 Comments

  1. Linda Gates says:

    Thank you, Janet Cooper Nelson! Lovely, calming, restorative.

  2. Allethaire Cullen says:

    This “love letter” is such a gift to the Brown community. Thank you, thank you! Now if some of our gifted singers would like to post their renditions of our Alma Mater, we less gifted singers would love to hear them (and sing along).

  3. Rita Warnock says:

    Dear Janet. I read your ‘love letter’ with pleasure. It’s do warm and encompassing. Thank you.
    Stay healthy and continue to be the bright light you are. Fondly, Rita W.

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