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On Point

A Sunday in Iraq


by Austin Bay
December 21, 2005

The hymn demanded verve, and with a Beethoven symphonic theme providing the melody line, power and a touch of harmonic glory should have been a musical breeze.

But the pianist-in-rumpled-uniform lacked verve -- the sweat-soaked fellow on the piano stool seemed distracted. His knee banged the bottom of the electric piano, knocking the hymnal from its slot. The congregants in the front pew, dressed in desert camouflage and armed with assault rifles, chuckled. The pianist muttered something about a mad dash back to camp from a meeting downtown in Baghdad's Green Zone.

The chapel doors swung open. Two young MPs ambled in, their boots shedding dust picked up on patrol in the city's tough western outskirts. A contractor, glancing at his watch, quietly placed his submachine gun on the pew as the priest nodded to the pianist.

So the pianist played. Correction: He plunked. He plunked the plunk of the unprepared, a guy out of sync and sight-reading on the fly. He thumped halfway through the first verse, with an awkward, improving accuracy, then (energized by the music) he leaned into the last heavy chords as the congregation (a surprisingly upbeat choir, the pianist thought -- tired bodies, vibrant souls) asked the Giver of immortal gladness to "fill us with the light of day."

One verse down, three to go -- Lord help me.

A Baghdad summer day has plenty of light, especially when the heat cracks 125 degrees. No doubt the lyrics of Henry van Dyke's "Joyful joyful we adore thee," which ask God "to melt the clouds of sin," reflect the poet's experience with winter in New Jersey. The lyrics, however, hold no more irony than the act of armed worship in a war zone. Sing them with Beethoven's tune, and -- especially when supported by a quality accompanist -- you'll glimpse the "joy divine."

As for armed worship, better the irony of evident weapons than hidden anger, veiled hate or secret cynicism.

Life deals surprises. The last thing I thought I'd do in Iraq was play piano in church. I didn't think about music at all during the deployment prep for my tour in Iraq. I didn't think about church, either. I did pray that my family remained safe in my absence.

Our forward operating base had a chapel. The first time I checked it out -- on a Friday, about one o'clock, my second week in Iraq -- I caught the end of a Muslim prayer service. A non-com from Philadelphia was stacking prayer rugs in the corner. He pointed to a list of Christian services and encouraged me to attend.

I made the next Sunday service. The congregation didn't have an accompanist, so we sang a capella. Rather, we croaked a capella. After three weeks of raspy "voice-only," a British colonel complained to our chaplain, Reese Hutcheson. "We must have a musician," the colonel said in a clipped English accent. Hutcheson surveyed his flock and asked: "Can anyone play? You'll have to fill in until the new chaplain's assistant arrives in two months."

Though 1982 was the last time I'd practiced hymns for a church service, I slowly raised my hand.

Hutcheson said, "You've just volunteered."

My stint as a Baghdad church musician -- 10 weeks, until relieved by the chaplain's assistant -- was not distinguished. If I found 15 minutes during the week to peruse the music, then I'd lucked out. Free time was that scarce.

Yet playing on Sunday proved to be no burden -- quite the opposite. Plunking on Beethoven, picking through "Holy Holy Holy" became the week's subtle, unexpected center, a moment of rough but sincere melody in trying, troubling circumstances.

It was an unexpected gift.

Van Dyke's hymn asks God to "Teach us how to love each other, Lift us to the joy divine."

May the coming year receive this greatest gift -- for such love and joy is true peace.

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