I was raised Catholic, dutifully going through first communion and whatever the thing is at twelve or thirteen . . . I think it’s confirmation. I remember having to choose a saint’s name to add to mine, so I chose the longest one, Catherine, in order to have the longest overall name in the class. As you can see, the religious part of Catholicism didn’t stick, but the church, well, the church was hugely influential in my life.
In 1970, our church was one of the first to include folk music in the worship service, although it would take a couple of years for the practice to be fully accepted. The initial response from Father Kelly was, “Over my dead body will a guitar be on that altar!” For some reason, guitars (especially electric ones) and drums and eventually trumpets (!) were not appropriate in a house of God.
The organ was the blessed instrument of the time, so our folk group, All in One, was relegated to the basement of the church, performing for youth services on Sunday nights. Then, one day the organist got sick and we were asked to substitute at the regular mass. More than half the congregation left the service in protest. It was awesome! I relished being a misunderstood, rebellious musician, just like Bob Dylan. Luckily, Father Kelly didn’t have to die for us to succeed. I think God really liked us singing songs like “Get Together” and “Try a Little Kindness,” because our popularity grew. Eventually, Father Kelly gave in and moved us to the “prime time” spot of 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning.
At fourteen, I was the youngest of the group, practicing new guitar licks and expanding my musical range as I learned from the older members. The night we gathered around the turntable in the dusty basement of the church, listening to Elton John’s self-titled album is as vivid today as it was then, stopping after each song to pick out chords and write down lyrics because none of us could afford sheet music. Our real religion was music and it fed our creative souls. By June of 1971, we’d cut our first album and were traveling each week, by invitation, to play for a wide variety of religious communities.
Those were eye-opening experiences that influenced me greatly—“sister” Christian churches (Methodist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and more), synagogues, and “spirit halls” where audience members were often compelled by the Holy Spirit to speak in tongues. One of my most formative experiences was playing at the wedding of an ex-priest and ex-nun. They’d fallen in love, sacrificed their calling, and been excommunicated from the church. They asked us to be part of their ceremony. We weren’t allowed to play under the auspices of the church, so we all “just happened” to show up with our instruments at the wedding. Witnessing their commitment and joy showed me that love expresses itself in an infinite number of ways.
In fact, all the religious ceremonies we played at were about love. I was fascinated by the similarities. At each one, people stood and sat and knelt and read from a book and eventually, with our help, sang songs. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why people fought over religious differences. I just couldn’t see it and, for sure, I didn’t feel it.
So, I decided to enter college as a religion major, prompting my dad to ask, with some trepidation, “Does that mean you want to become a nun?” When I assured him that was not the case, he proceeded to question what kind of job I was going to get.
After the first year of study, I was bored with reading old tomes and discussing philosophical possibilities. I missed the experiential interaction that came with participating in the spiritual ceremonies. I needed to make a change. Again, I went to my dad.
“I think you were right,” I confessed, “religion may not be the right major for me.”
Temporary relief washed over him as I continued with great enthusiasm.
“I’m going to be a theater major!”
While I thought this was great news, I know he struggled to resist banging his head on the table.
Theater became my new chapel. Scripts replaced bibles as we interpreted the author’s words for meaning that was waiting to be brought to life on stage. We stood. We sat. Many times, we sang. On occasion, we even knelt. We created communal experiences designed to evoke a response from our audience. Theater was a religious experience for me—without the restrictions of dogma.
Being part of the All in One folk group set me on a lifelong path of spiritual exploration. I’ve lived a life full of experiences that continue to reinforce my belief that our folk group was aptly named. We are, indeed, all in one. One human entity united in spirit and connected by love.