The Spirituality and the Arts Players at Mount Gilead Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.

VA medical center offers healing musical endeavor

By Nadine Hasenecz

At the Washington, D.C., Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, veterans, staff members and community members are participating in an uplifting musical endeavor that’s unique among VA medical centers. More specifically, they perform as singers and musicians in a group known as the “Spirituality and the Arts Players” (SAP), under the direction of the Rev. Cheryl A. Jones, the medical center’s wellness chaplain.

Seeds of the group were planted in 2008–2009, Jones says, when a doctor wrote a grant for the medical center’s LIVe (Lifestyle Interventions for Veterans with Diabetes) multidisciplinary program, insisting that spirituality be included. When Jones joined the team, she offered piano and guitar lessons to veterans and staff members as part of the spirituality component.

In addition, Jones had been playing piano for a monthly service in the medical center’s chapel. Jones remembers the afternoon that she and a colleague found themselves singing their way through a pile of gospel sheet music left behind by another pianist.

Afterward, “we walked to our cars, and I said, ‘We should start a weekly sing-along!’” Jones recalls. “A medical support assistant from cardiology was walking behind us and overheard us. She said, ‘I’d come to that!’”

What began as a five-person one-day-a-week sing-along has grown to a performance group of at least 18 members — including a percussionist, pianist, guitarist and bassist — who rehearse together for 90 minutes twice weekly. The group performs at a variety of holiday programs at the medical center. In addition, they’ve performed in the region at Howard University School of Divinity and Mount Gilead Baptist Church, both in Washington, D.C., and Kingdom Missionary Baptist Church, Bladensburg, Md.

Performances feature a variety of genres, including present-day Christian music, such as “How Great is Our God” by Chris Tomlin; Civil Rights Movement songs, such as “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round”; and contemporary pop, like Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.”

SAP is healing to performers and listeners on a variety of levels, according to Jones, who began playing piano at age 8 and singing in church as a teen, attended a high school for the performing arts, studied music therapy in undergraduate school, served as a church’s minister of music, and moonlights as a jazz vocalist.

“The arts — and music, in particular — employ all of your brain: the emotional center of the brain, the memory center of the brain. Music lights up all of the brain,” Jones says. “People’s memories are touched. You hear a song, and you might shed a tear because it reminds you of childhood.

“Music brings community — you have to collaborate to play in a group,” she continues. “We deal with interpersonal issues in making music together. There’s the performance issue of getting up in front of veterans and staff. It means something to you when you’re not used to singing solos. It takes courage. It takes hard work because I insist on excellence. The group starts expecting that and requiring from each other the excellence piece — the commitment, the responsibility of showing up on time, being in the right attire. Each performance, we decide what colors to wear — the pride it instills to look good when you perform.”

It’s also cathartic, Jones says, when performers share a part of themselves with the audience. She remembers, for example, a time that a group member performed his own composition.

“During his introduction to the song, he talked about when he wanted to commit suicide. Friends helped him through that,” she says. “Another vet came to me after the performance and said, ‘I never knew that about him. I just went around the corner and cried. I’m just so uplifted.’”

Nadine Hasenecz is senior writer for American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.