April 30, 2020

A music director’s view on COVID-19

A music director’s view on COVID-19


Last week was the second week of my furlough as Director of Music at a Catholic church, and I was doing a pretty good job of getting my sea legs while navigating this new territory. In making plans for my “sabbatical,” as I’ve come to call it, I was working to stay positive and was having more high moments than low. I was doing fairly well, until I wasn’t.

Friday was the first day I was able to report hours for unemployment insurance, which, in itself, comes with an array of emotion. I dutifully logged in, entered the needed information, but when submitting the form, I was confronted with a puzzling error message: “This social security number is already in use. Please choose another one.” No matter how many times I tried, how careful I was, there was no getting around this insane request because, obviously, I only have one SSN. Yelling this last bit of information at the screen proved futile. The Maryland Department of Labor helpline was no longer taking calls, so I had to rely on email. An unfamiliar sense of panic started to creep in and tears welled up, as I felt completely alone in this process. In the midst of this, I realized my emotional reaction had less to do with the frustration at hand and more to do with, well, everything. This was simply the proverbial last straw.

Despite being exhausted by the hours spent on this, I ultimately felt immense gratitude: gratitude for the kind, overworked public servant who responded and fixed this glitch; gratitude that, even though my full salary will be missed, I am not the primary breadwinner in my household; gratitude that I have the ability to navigate such issues, and prayer for the many who do not.

And there is a oneness with my brothers and sisters who find themselves in the same boat, many of whom are, indeed, facing greater financial hardship than I — particularly those who rely on travel as they minister. Those of us who compose, conduct, accompany, cantor or provide music for the Church in any way, are in good company as we confront the humbling uncertainty of, not only our employment, but of our ministries as well.

For me, far more painful than the loss of a job, is the inability to minister to my community when they need it most. Despite my desire to volunteer during this time, labor laws, written to protect workers, prevent me from doing so. Under the current circumstances and given the need for ministry, one would hope that such laws would not apply. Then I remember the many less fortunate workers who suffer injustice at the hands of unethical employers as they struggle to survive, and, in solidarity, I relent.

Yet still, there is grief. My colleagues across the globe share stories as they deal with this loss. What will our ministries look like when we return? Who will be there?

And there is guilt. Do the parishioners understand why, after initially seeing me minister for livestreamed Masses, I have disappeared? Do they know I’d be there if I could? Does the family who buried a dear parishioner last week understand why I was unable to assist them? Do they think I’ve abandoned them in their time of need?

We ministers without a ministry are like mothers who have lost a child. We are suddenly empty-handed. I am reminded of a time a number of years ago when I felt such a loss. I was the main caregiver for my husband’s grandparents. Grampa died at the age of 98. Then, almost a year later, we lost Grandma at the age of 99. By all accounts, she had lived a long, full life. We celebrated her funeral, and the world around me continued on, while grief seemed to be uniquely mine. I was the one who had mothered her. Like a firefighter, I had been at the ready awaiting the next emergency. Two weeks later, I sat empty-handed and broken-hearted, unable to pray. Like now, the purpose that had filled my days was gone, and I simply told God that I didn’t know what to do. I will never forget the sudden warmth surrounding me, and the message whispered into my heart, “I am here.”

This is where the light shines in the midst of our turmoil — in those simple words, “I am here.” As ministers, we live lives of hope, harbor embers of joy despite sorrow, and remind those around us of God’s never-changing, everlasting presence. Even though we sometimes need a gentle reminder, these truths are at our core, and we know we are not alone. We know that God is in all things. We will never be abandoned. Clinging to this peaceful message, we can go forward without fear.

Along with staying emotionally healthy, and remembering to listen in prayer, it is also vital for us to take practical steps as we look ahead to the unknown.

First, if you have been furloughed, fired or have reduced hours, and have not yet done so, guiltlessly apply for unemployment insurance. It is not a free government handout. It is a benefit funded through your employer, and it is there for you. OCP has also done a wonderful job listing other sources of aid for musicians who need it. Again, it’s there for you. No shame. Period.

Work to maintain contact with your ministries and parishioners in ways that do not entail your traditional job description. Last week my choir had a zoom happy hour where I asked everyone to come with a joke to tell. It was hoot! Call members of your parish. Conversations offer an intimacy many are missing.

Finally, nourish yourselves. Take care of your physical well-being. Create. Sing. Notice the beauty. Feed your fire. Embrace each day. For when this is over, God will again need you to be his presence among his people, and you will need to be ready.


Note: We received notice that Remi’s parish secured a PPP loan this week. She is grateful to be able to minister again and prays that others in the same situation will soon receive similar news.

Remi Fonseca Bauer
Remi Fonseca Bauer

Remi Fonseca Bauer began her involvement in music ministry as a young girl, singing in the choir and as a cantor. With this experience, she was well prepared for the transition to liturgical composer. Remi began composing music a number of years ago as a way of answering God's call to spread the good news, to give hope to those in need. With the hope of creating prayerful music for liturgies, many of her songs serve as beautiful reminders of God's presence in our lives.