“Shall We Gather at the River?”

Report of An Interfaith Service on Raspberry Island, September 8, 2000

by Phil Johnson

In “Transcending Everydayness” (Fall, 1988), Bruce Carlson wrote about building a bandstand on an island in the Mississippi River in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. He hoped that the Raspberry Island Bandstand might provide occasions for “rotations”—“…adventures which break the grip of everydayness…They often come by accident and when they come, we cross a border to a new awareness.”

“The Schubert Club Heilmaier Memorial Bandstand,” commissioned by the Schubert Club and brought into being by the vision and imaginative administrative skill of Bruce, its Executive Director, is now a dedicated reality.

The well-planned dedication—an Interfaith Service and a Gala Concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra—included poetry, prose, and music written for the occasion as well as the elaborate recording equipment of Minnesota Public Radio. All this planning, as Bruce pointed out in 1988, makes rotation problematic.

Still, the service had qualities of a rotation. The unusual September heat forced the crowd toward patches of shade from the trees along the river. A long freight train took its time crossing the river on a bridge above and behind the bandstand. (It reminded me of the Northern Pacific steam-engine freight puffing and tooting across the trestle at the Big Fork River at 7:15 pm while Koochiching Bible Campers at evening service sang choruses as loudly as they could.) The river, the heat, and the train opposed everydayness.

Rotation or not, the service was great! Following the sounds of the Indonesian Gamelan, Bruce welcomed us warmly, saying that he wanted a “blessing” for the bandstand. The project was conceived and executed to be a blessing to the community. Dorothy Benham blessed the gathered people and the entire riverfront as she sang “America the Beautiful.” It was lovely, spirit-filled, and powerful. The Rev. John Anderson of the Council of Churches spoke of the intention to be blessed by and to embrace all faiths of the community and introduced Georgia Lickness. She invoked the blessing of her ancestors, her people, who have lived and moved upon these waters for thousands of years.

Things were going along well and got even better when Marcus Cox stepped to the podium. “The gift of music,” he said, provides “liberty for the daughters and sons of God” by the way in which it requires us to attend and to yield the time to listen and be present. Music, like religious contemplation, is “moment-by-moment, heartbeat-by-heartbeat;” it brings us the wisdom of being creatures which we receive as a gift. This wisdom is not something we can control. Under the warm sun, the tiny patch of shade receding, these words of truth lifted my heart.

Patricia Hampl blessed the event with re-flections about Raspberry Island, once called Navy Island. She re-called times on the river with her father.

One day as Patricia, her father, and dog, Buddy, stood off Raspberry island in their boat, her father said: “They should do something with that.” “With what?” “Raspberry Island…. They used to have music there.”

“Why not,” Patricia continued, “gather at the river, as the old hymn says…. All of us should come. We’ll hear the music, gathered together on this island that is our civic boat….”

Iman Hassan Mohamud of Al-Taqwa Mosque blessed us with two verses from the Koran praising diversity, differing peoples with differing gifts, working together. He offered a prayer of appreciation for America. This was another touching moment.

“The Healing Fountain,” composed for the occasion by David Evan Thomas, was played beautifully by a trio from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Though recently informed of the value of attending to music by Pastor Cox, the heat of the afternoon was becoming a challenge. We had another “Reflection” to go.

As the sweet notes died away, Pastor David Kersten stepped forward and with vigor commanded our attention. “The Beautiful, Beautiful River,” he proclaimed, is a great blessing. It’s beauty speaks to us of beginnings, it provides beautiful abundance, and in it draws us into its intimacy. He also spoke of the blessing of music and ended with the Biblical words: “[God] sings over us.”

This left only the final blessing of dismissal pronounced upon the bandstand and us by The Rev. Robert Battle, Chair of the Human Rights Commission of Saint Paul.

Bruce and the Schubert Club have blessed the city and the river itself. Perhaps it will happen as Bruce wrote in 1998:

…a person unfamiliar with the Mississippi, in a Chris Craft which is out of gas and drifting, comes around a bend in the River at dusk…notices the bandstand and sees and hears Yo-Yo Ma playing some unaccompanied Bach on his lively Stradivarius cello…. the music would seem as if it came from the center of the universe.