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Singing for the suffering

Musicians perform at an elderly home in Belgium. (Benoit Doppagne/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images)


Singing for the suffering

A Belgian choir takes it talents to locked down nursing homes

Like office workers across Europe, Luiza Chrzanowska found herself sidelined by COVID-19. A day job as an economist with the European Commission at its headquarters in Brussels turned into teleworking from home, alone. The ecumenical choir she leads, Chapel for Europe, took a sudden sabbatical as the coronavirus canceled events.

Closed borders and travel bans meant the Catholic evangelical could not return to her native Poland. “Missing Easter breakfast with my family has probably been the most difficult thing for me,” Chrzanowska told me when I reached her by phone in the Belgian capital.

Her choir no longer met for singing, “too contagious,” she said, “so we had Zoom rehearsals instead.”

That’s when Chrzanowska and several choir members from the Well, a cross-cultural evangelical church in Brussels, had an idea: They could take their singing to the suffering.

The group began with an impromptu Sunday afternoon concert outside Cinquantenaire, a private elderly care facility with hundreds of residents in the Brussels suburb of Etterbeek. The musicians, about 15 altogether, added another home for the elderly about five minutes’ walk away, where the mother of one of their members resides.

In early May when they began, COVID-19 deaths in Belgium had come down from several thousand a day in April to perhaps 600 a day, more than half of them in nursing homes like these. But a strict lockdown, already in place for six weeks, continued. Only food shops were open and shopping was limited to one person per family. Residents could leave their homes for one hour’s exercise per day, and police used drones to monitor social distancing. At the nursing homes, relatives couldn’t visit and residents were confined inside their own rooms.

Chrzanowska’s outdoor concerts quickly became anticipated events, and the singers learned to recognize each resident at his or her window. Some stood, obviously waiting for them, while a saxophonist roused others from rest. Accordion and trumpet players also accompanied the singers, with everyone in the group using their allotted exercise time to make the sessions happen.

Harmonizing outdoors and with distance takes a lot of improvising, said Chrzanowska, but soon she learned those indoors were calling them the “Choir of Love.” They were making a difference, said relatives and staff.  One resident attempted suicide early in lockdown. She became the first to stand on a balcony awaiting the choir’s arrival. The Cinquantenaire director, seeing the effect, rented a hydraulic scaffold for the singers to be lifted to the windows of each floor.

“People join us in the street too. We choose songs they know, and it means so much that we are coming to show our love. There’s real bonding going on,” Chrzanowska said. “Even if you go for half an hour, it matters. It’s doing unto the least of these for all that Jesus has done for me.”

On a Sunday in June, one of the regulars didn’t show at her window. “We feared she had died of COVID-19,” said Chrzanowska, “but as we were finishing, she appeared. She had just taken a nap and was late. So we stayed longer to sing just for her.”