Student Hymn Sings Build Connection to Faith and Each Other

Thursday, April 23, 2020
students singing in chapel
This article was written prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When one hears of a hymn sing, university students spending their evening singing from a hymnal is rarely the first image that comes to mind. However, at Conrad Grebel University College, students have organized Sunday evening hymn sings for several years. Hannah Brubacher Kaethler is a Grebel resident and peer leader for the PeaceTech Living-Learning Community. She said these Sunday evening gatherings draw students who are “looking for another opportunity to express their faith. This ends up reaching a lot of Mennonite students, but also many others!” While the setting is intentionally informal, with hymn requests coming from those in attendance, they have a tradition of closing their time together with Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow (commonly known as 606/118).

In addition to leading the Chapel Choir, Grebel Music Professor Kate Steiner teaches a course entitled “The Christian Hymn.” She agrees that people often feel connected while singing hymns and that hymnody presents a way to interpret and express one’s faith. “We learn who God is by singing praise to God together, and we have a broader view of God when we can learn to sing together with others.” She said this course also aims to help students understand cultural contexts that well-known hymns are born out of, as well as expanding their vision of what a hymn is. “A hymn, broadly speaking, is a praise of God sung together.”

Speaker in hymnody classOne of Kate’s recent hymnody classes welcomed Grebel alumna Sarah Johnson to speak about her editing process for Menno Media’s production of the new Voices Together hymnal. Kate commented that “she spoke about how the new hymnal attempts to reflect the whole of the Mennonite church in all of its diversity.” She explained that this means the inclusion of more contemporary songs, songs in Spanish, and revised versions of early Anabaptist hymns.

Two first-year Grebel residents are enjoying the opportunity that Grebel’s Sunday night hymn sing presents for some extracurricular research. Joel Woods and Hayden Epp have been faithfully recording hymn-singing stats from these gatherings for the past two terms, truly contributing to University of Waterloo’s reputation for going beyond a simple idea. “We thought it would be fun to be able to figure out which hymns were the most popular, who called the most hymns, and how many hymns we sing on the average week. So far we have been surprised by how rarely we repeat hymns,” remarked Hayden. Those they have found repeated include Je louerai l’Eternel (which the French-speakers enjoy calling), We are people of God’s peace, and Precious Lord, take my hand. “Recording this data has become an interesting addition to the weekly hymn sing.” He explained that the pair take turns recording basic information by hand during the meeting. They then return to Hayden’s room for “data entry,” which involves enjoying snacks with friends while they flip through hymnals for additional information to add to their shared Google Sheet. They look forward to reflecting on their findings at the end of term.

Hayden shared that before attending Grebel, he only found nostalgic value in hymnal-use. He didn’t know how to sing the traditional four-part harmony until he made the effort to learn it during the weekly hymn sing. “The relaxed format of the weekly hymn sing at Grebel helped me open up to singing hymns and I’m really glad that I have.” Hayden said he enjoys the community of fellow Grebelites at these hymn sings, as well as the connection he feels to the “time transcending group of Mennonites who have loved singing these songs for generations.” Grebel looks forward to singing these songs from the Voices Together hymnal in the fall of 2020.

By Elizabeth Robertson

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