One of my first memories from childhood is of the playground outside of our military apartment complex in Hanau, Germany. I recall climbing on top of the wooden train engine’s black smokestack and staring directly into the lens of my mother’s toaster-sized video camera. Assuming a serious expression, I sucked in a large breath and began to belt “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” at the top of my lungs. I can’t remember if I sang it in tune or not, because I wasn’t worried about what it sounded like at all. What I do remember is that I was fearless, and I had a song to sing. So I did.
As I grew up, that fearlessness became more and more necessary. Unfortunately, it also grew harder and harder to come by. Every year or two, my family moved to a new assignment, and I had to start from scratch, trying to assert myself with all new people. I became less and less sure of who I was as I lost the necessary grounding of long-held relationships and a familiar environment. I grew quieter and more timid, depending on other people to introduce themselves to me or else not getting to know anyone at all. After a brief stint as the new kid at a public school with students who had known each other since diapers, it became abundantly clear that my peers weren’t looking for a new friend. I began to feel like an intruder and an imposition on others. I gave up my voice in exchange for the lonely comfort of being a wallflower. I became so afraid of speaking up that when my family needed extra ketchup packets at McDonald’s, I’d cry rather than ask an employee for a moment of their time.
Between that day on the playground as an unabashed child and the day I moved into L’Arche, I’d moved a total of nine times, with my four years in college at Virginia Tech being my longest stay anywhere. More times than I can count during those years I fearfully abandoned my voice.
I moved into Ontario House on a Monday afternoon, a few short hours before dinner. Once all of my things had been brought inside by the handful of assistants awaiting my arrival, I was instantly assumed into the life of the home, its rhythms and routines. I went on a neighborhood tour with one assistant, then rode along the transportation route to and from the core members’ day programs with two other assistants, and then from the driveway went straightaway to Starbucks with Johnny and Walton Schofield and another assistant. Returning from the coffee outing, I walked into the house to find four of my new community members having an impromptu dance party to The Beatles in the doorway. Before I could question whether or not I should step around them, Eileen Schofield, whom I had not yet met, grabbed my hand and pulled me into the middle of the circle where I had no choice but to dance.
That was only the beginning of the evening’s musical extravaganza. Traditionally, on Monday nights the community sings for after-dinner prayer, and that night was no exception. After stacking all of the plates by the sink in the adjoining kitchen, someone turned out the dining room lights and lit a parade of various-sized candles down the center of the table. Once the last candle was lit, everyone ceased the whispered chatter, and a reverent silence settled in. My head was bowed when the singing began, but somehow Eileen and Debora Green had been cued to lead us in singing “This Little Light of Mine.” I was too stunned to sing along. Never before had I seen anyone sing with such enthusiasm. My two newest friends sung with raw energy. For Eileen, it seemed as if the song had come hurtling out of her, rushing up all the way from her toes and refusing to be sung with anything less than every ounce of spirit she had in her. It crossed my mind that Eileen would have a thing or two to teach me about the lived definition of praise.
Nine months after arriving at Ontario House, I met up with Eileen just after Mass, as she handed back her choir stole and stepped off the raised platform. She grinned up at me brightly, reaching out with her tiny hands, clasping one of mine in both of hers. “Hi, friend!”
“When are you going to be in the choir with me?” she asked loudly. I flinched and glanced anxiously over my shoulder, worried that someone might overhear us.
“As soon as I have the guts to meet the choir director, I guess,” I half-whispered, trying to find the easiest way to extricate myself from the situation. I had told Eileen weeks and weeks before that I wanted to join the music ministry but had slipped out of the building as soon as Mass ended each Sunday, terrified of asking for what I wanted.
“Oh!” Eileen shouted, and set off toward the piano, dragging me along by our clasped hands. I followed obediently, ducking my head, feeling my heart rate accelerate. I tried to remember if she spoke at that volume at home or if she was still just speaking with the lung capacity she’d used to sing that day’s hymns. Interrupting the conversation the choir director was having with the clarinet player, Eileen exclaimed, “She wants to join the choir with us!”
The choir director smiled at the clarinetist and turned her attention to us. Extending her hand to me, she said simply, “We’d love to have you sing with us.” Eileen released my hand so I could shake hers.
Five minutes later, I was a member of the choir, walking out of the church with sheet music and a choral book. I watched Eileen eagerly greet the priest on her way down the front steps. I marveled at her gumption and wondered how I could possibly thank her for what she had just done for me. More amazing still was the realization that she wasn’t looking for gratitude.
Eileen’s confident sharing of her gifts and uninhibited self-expression would be my saving grace countless times during my first year in community. Knowing her meant coming to know the kind of courage I had been asking for abstractly in prayer for so much of my life. That courage would come to bear soon after I joined the choir as another assistant, Crisely Melecio-Zambrano, and I were asked to sing at the Heart of L’Arche Breakfast at the beginning of May. When I first agreed to it, the song had been one that Crisely and I would sing together—verses and chorus in unison. The song choice changed and I discovered I would be singing the full first verse of the aptly named “One Voice” accompanied only by guitar. Some acoustic strumming and my voice for a good forty seconds on stage before a room of hundreds of people I had never met. Quite frankly, I was terrified. But I had made a commitment, and I was going to see it through.
When the day arrived, we did a sound check shortly before the event was to begin. The moment Crisely played the first chord on her guitar, I looked up from my feet to find Eileen standing just in front of the stage, both arms in the air, conducting the song with punctuated gestures and the biggest smile. I stifled a laugh, held her gaze, and began to sing. And just like that, I knew I could do it. Eileen had shown me that gifts were not meant to be squandered, withheld, denied, or in any way qualified. I would claim this gift, and I would share it without reservation. I had a voice, so I used it. I had a song to sing, so I sang it.
This past Sunday at Mass, standing alongside Eileen in the choir, I had a moment where I almost stepped back from the row of microphones and sat down for the final song. We hadn’t practiced it enough, and even though I couldn’t hear my own voice amid the others, I was sure that the microphone was picking up every missed note, every accidental flat, carrying it out over the congregation. But I kept on singing anyway, because just two feet to my right stood a woman singing with all of her might without a care, whose guilelessness overcame my cowardice.
Kara Olenick is one of seven children. She’s lived in six different states and three cities in Germany. Her family currently resides in Chesapeake, Virginia. Kara majored in English literature, language, and culture and minored in music at Virginia Tech. Prior to coming to L’Arche in 2013, she spent participated in a year-long service and intentional faith community called Amate House in Chicago.