Music, faith, and memory.

By Michelle A. Chikaonda

Music has been intertwined with faith for me as far back as my earliest memories go. My family were Seventh-Day Adventists, and when I was a child—first in Canada, later in our home country of Malawi—before we left for church every Saturday my father would play a cassette tape of Sabbath School songs for me and my two siblings to sing along to in the living room.  Sabbath School Songs for Cradle Roll—“Cradle Roll” being the name of the Sabbath School class for babies and toddlers—contained 62 short songs. My brother, sister and I would run, skip and hop our way through them all morning, with my parents occasionally yelling “Kids! Stop being so hyper!” from their bedroom as they got ready for church.

Sometimes, if Dad was particularly annoyed with our antics, he would switch the kids’ tape out for his and Mom’s grown-up hymns. But we quickly learned to sing along to those, too, and I still have the opening strains of those songs—“Angels Watching Over Me”and “At Calvary” and “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder”—memorized.  The songs really were nothing to get so energized over—especially on the kids’ tape, where they mostly urged children to be kind and remember we were all special to Jesus—but their melodies were simple and catchy, and despite my parents’ repeated invocations to calm down, by the following Saturday we were back jumping and shrieking all over again. 

In my first year of high school in Malawi, I became a born-again Christian.  It wasn’t the philosophy of born-again Christianity itself that initiated my eventual conversion—it was the singing of a small choir of its followers. A friend who was in the choir invited me to sing with them one afternoon, and after a few rehearsals I decided to both join the group and convert.  Together we would sing well-known hymns, like “How Great Thou Art” and “Seek Ye First,” and newer Christian pop ballads, like “Shout to the Lord” and “Our God Is an Awesome God.”  We performed concerts at Sunday night chapel services and led pre-dawn prayer meetings on school days. I stayed with that group for nearly two years.

At 16, I transferred to a small international high school in Wales, to do the International Baccalaureate; I wanted to widen my post-high school educational opportunities, but the only school in Malawi offering the program had a limited subject offering.  I met people from many religious backgrounds at that school—three Muslim girls who remain close friends today, practicing Hindus in my beginners’ Spanish class, a Jewish girl in the room next to mine.  I couldn’t understand why all of these otherwise good people were necessarily condemned to eternal suffering simply for not following the God I’d learned about at home in Malawi.

I wonder now if it was as simple as the music disappearing and taking my faith with it. Nonetheless the Christian shape of my spiritual life began to disintegrate, as I found that I could neither justify branding my new peers as irredeemable, nor hypocritically remain associated with them if they indeed were. I stopped talking about God so much with my friends back home, and I eventually chose to attend college in the United States, at Penn, adding an ocean to the continent of distance I had already put between myself and Malawi when I first left for the UK. 

For as final as that split turned out to be, I never really came to an outright reckoning with it. I instead just quietly allowed my former religious fervor to ebb out of my life, with that time now being taken up by other things. Parties in the Quad, a pile of extracurriculars, long nights in Van Pelt Library trying to revive a GPA demolished freshman year by ill-fated pre-med dreams.  I still listened to the old songs, though—their melodies calmed me down when I was sad, cheered me up when I was lonely, and reminded me of that long-ago permutation of my life at home, even though I knew exactly why I had decided to leave it behind.

Ten years after I graduated from Penn, in December 2016, my father was diagnosed with Stage 4 colorectal cancer.  Malawi only had two oncologists and his case was too advanced for either to address, so he and Mom moved to Loma Linda, California, for his treatment.  Among many reasons my parents chose Loma Linda—the weather, nearby friends, and wanting to be closer to me and my siblings—the most important was that it was a Seventh-Day Adventist town. I visited them every few weeks. Although it had been a long time since I’d been inside a church, I decided to start attending services with them again on my visits, at their favorite church—Loma Linda University Church—and would often discuss the sermons with them afterward.  

On these trips Dad and I would often stay up late together to talk, like we used to on my holiday visits home to Malawi. Dad would look up versions of hymns that he loved on YouTube and play them for me through the television, and then we’d talk about them afterward—Wintley Phipps’ rendition of “Amazing Grace,” the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s version of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” Selah’s version of “I Need Thee Every Hour.”  I sometimes wondered if Dad was trying to tell me something about his faith in this way, but I never asked, and he never elaborated. We just listened and talked, until the early hours of the morning.

“Amazing Grace” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” aren’t the only songs I have memories of us talking about; “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and “This Is My Father’s World” were others that took up our late night hours.  That latter has, today, taken on a whole new meaning for me: I was born at HUP three weeks after Dad received his MBA from Wharton, and I have mirror photographs in identical spots on campus, 22 years apart: my mom and me on the steps of Van Pelt, my dad and me by the Benjamin Franklin Statue. Having worked on this very same campus for the past seven years, I regularly walk by those same spots, which belonged to my father before he shared them with me.

Dad kept insistently going to church, until he became too tired for the seven-minute walk and it was too painful for him to sit upright in the pews.  On my later visits, my parents and I would instead watch their church’s simulcast of the 11 a.m. service through their small television. Increasingly, Dad would sleep through most of it, but we never changed the channel. In the final two weeks of his life, when he was in Intensive Care, we would cue up the church music channel on the hospital room television; even though we weren’t sure he could even hear it anymore, we wanted it on in case he could. The first Saturday after he died, a group of Malawian Seventh-Day Adventists came to sing for us; one hymn they sang was “It Is Well With My Soul,” one of Dad’s favorites, which he had often sung as a choir soloist in my childhood church in Canada. The group simply held our hands as they sang into the evening darkness, while my mother, sister, and I sat silently and cried. 

Now, nearly a year later, I sometimes wonder if Dad wasn’t so much showing me his faith through song—as I had at first thought—but helping us to access, together, the complicated feelings of that time, that otherwise felt nearly impossible to speak. Church songs—with their oscillations between hope and despair, crescendos of praise followed by descents into agony—had always been a kind of home in the most formative phases of my life, and I wonder now if returning together to the omnipresence of song was the result of us seeking together a years-ago feeling of safety and comfort amid the disorientation of my young adulthood and his approaching death.

Today I still play the songs my father and I listened to together, both the songs from the beginning of my life and the songs from the ending of his.  Though I often still cry when I hear them, I also now occasionally feel something like joy, especially when listening to the hymns as I walk the city on a beautiful day, a day that feels made for him, or maybe a day he—or He—made for me.  I am unsure but open to belief’s possibilities.  I remain apart from any formal church, but I want to honor my father and the God-like shape his own belief occupied in my life.  And I think that is ultimately as far as my faith today goes: an ongoing cultivation of the private life between my father and me, only now in memory, for our relationship has gone into the afterlife. 

Michelle A. Chikaonda C’06 is an essayist, and current assistant director at the Penn Alumni Interview Program. Her father was Dr. Mathias A. P. Chikaonda WG’83, former governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi; Dr. Chikaonda died of colorectal cancer on October 30, 2018.

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