Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Send These People to Transylvania

The Tree of Life Adult Choir assembled before a multi-Church concert in McHenry County.  They had no match.

That’s right, I want you personally to send all of these smiling singers to far off Transylvania, a Hungarian speaking region of Romania best known as the stomping grounds of Vlad the Impaler and his alternate persona Count Dracula.  The isolated a mountainous region was also the home to John Sigismund, world history’s only Unitarian King who in 1568 issued the Edict of Torda, the world’s first document guaranteeing religious liberty to different and opposing sects.
The plucky Unitarians of Transylvania survived, against all odds, subsequent persecutions at the hands for both Reform Protestants (Calvinists) and resurgent Roman Catholics, as well as by the Ottoman Turks, the Kingdom of Hungary, the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis, and the brutal post-World War II Romanian Communist Regime.  They are today the oldest body of Unitarians in the world.
Which explains why the folks in the matching shirts and stoles want to go there.  They are members of the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation from McHenry County in Illinois.  Their Choir Director, Thomas Steffens, got it in his head to take them on a tour to perform in Sfantu Gheorghe, Brasov, Targu-Mures, and Cluj at some of the richly historic Transylvanian churches.  He calls it a musical pilgrimage.  On the trip, scheduled for the summer of 2016, the group will also visit Bran CastleCastle Dracula; the Black Church in Brasov, and the frescoed church of Szekelyderzs, the world’s only Unitarian UNESCO world heritage site.

Székelyderzs/Darjiu Fortified Church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It will not be the first time a Unitarian Universalist choir has toured Transylvania.  They have reciprocated, sending the talented Glee Club of the Unitarian high school, John Sigismund Unitarian Academy, located in Cluj-Napoca—known in Hungarian as Kolozsvár, the historic center of the faith—to perform at a UUA General Assembly and tour several churches, including Tree of Life.
American Unitarians and their successors in the UUA have maintained contact with the Transylvanian church since the World Parliament of Religions in 1899 and since World War II the relationship has been deepened by the creation of the Partnership Church Council which pairs congregations in the two countries.  Both bodies are also active members in the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) and International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.
The Tree of Life Choir tour is also both a swan song and career capstone for Thomas Steffens who is retiring at the end of the next Church year.  By the time of the trip Steffens said he hopes a new Director will have been hired and will accompany the choir on the trip as a passing of the baton.
Steffens has been a musician with the congregation for more than 30 years.  He first served as accompanist on piano and the pipe organ that was in place at the congregation’s old home when it was in Woodstock and known as the Congregational Unitarian Church.  He also led the band for Dille’s Follies, the Congregation’s popular annual revues.  Currently he also leads the Frothy Boys, a fun loving male close harmony/doo wop group that frequently performs at charity events and organizes and hosts the Congregation’s quarterly Haystacks Coffee House and Open Mic Nights

Thomas Steffens at work, Carrie MacDonald on guitar.
Under his leadership of the choir, it has grown in numbers and quality and is now regarded as the finest church choir of any denomination in McHenry County.  It is an a capella ensemble, although guest musicians are sometimes added for concert performances.  An accomplished arranger and composer in his own right, Stephens has expanded the choir’s repertoire far beyond expected hymns and church music to include jazz, pop, Broadway, rock, gospel, and world music particularly African and Jewish.  He has in the choir several accomplished soloists and sometimes adds his own rich baritone.
On the side Steffens has worked extensively in regional musical theater and performs in the Irish folk duo Nippersink Rogues and plays trombone in the German Ompah band Die Musikmeisters.
All of the members of the large choir want to go on the trip of a life time.  Many can pay their own way.  Several, however, cannot and are going to need assistance.  That’s where you, yes, you come in.  To kick off fundraising which will include a public Holiday Concert this December and a likely CD of that performance and grant applications, the choir has launched a crowd funding appeal with a goal of $5,000 on Faithify, a U.U. platform similar to sites like GoFundMe and Kickstarter.  There are only 7 days left to meet the goal.  As I write this they are just shy of half way there.  

I’ll be sending my contribution later today.  Please join me.  Just visit http://www.faithify.org/projects/a-musical-pilgrimage-to-the-cradle-of-uuism-transylvania-and-romania/

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