The thing churches never tell you—not in the trifold brochure or the pre-sermon donation plea—is they’re paying the choir a lot of money. I’m talking about big churches in big cities. Cathedrals built shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, with their own Flash websites and Wikipedia pages. Park Avenue hedge funders with limp fish haircuts and glitterball eyes and Van Cleef & Arpels bracelets—a row of them on wrists held out to receive the body of Christ.
I sang in one of these cathedrals when I was twenty-three. I’m Jewish. That’s the second thing churches will never tell you. They’re paying Jews—and Confucianists and atheists and melodious Satanists—to lead innocent, God-fearing gentiles in prayer. Churches can never really know if you believe Jesus died for your sins before they hire you. It’s just one of those things no one knows for sure.
“Let me ask you something. Are you Jewish?”
“Umm…Yeah, I guess. I’m not very religious.”
We were in the choir room: A windowless storage space with seven tiers of molding. Just me and the conductor, for my audition. We were surrounded by bins filled with copies of Mozart masses the choir had sung since the 1929 stock market crash. The smell of Episcopalian dust, stale time, air pushed through vibrating mucous membranes.
“I could tell. Your last name.”
I’d heard about the church gig from a college friend. We’d sung in a choir together before graduating and moving to New York. I had a job but was paying too much in rent, and the ends were not really meeting as much as laughing at each other across a chasm. I’d also just broken up with my first almost-boyfriend—I was alone and Seamlessless. My friend emailed one day:
SING YOUR HEART OUT (in church)
[Limestone Home of the Souls of Landed Gentry] is in desperate need of new tenors, and you should audition! You’ll need to sing two classical, sacred pieces—one florid, one sustained. Think REALLY pure and SIMPLE singing. The conductor will want to hear your sense of pitch and clear, Episcopalian tones. Make some cash, bitch.
I scheduled an audition. We all need money. Jesus saves.
The conductor handed me a hymnal. Told me to sing the tenor part of a hymn called “Jesus Died For This.” Led me up and down a scale. Told me to come on Sunday dressed in black and white. Crisp white shirt. Black tie. Black shoes. No patterns, please.
I’d make up to $100/Sunday. More on Christmas and Easter. Christmas could net as much as $200.
The choir was small: nine women and nine men. We sang classical music, mostly in Latin or German, and rehearsed for an hour before each service. Most of us were semi-employed musicians, actors and designers. An alto painted ceramic cups that had just been picked up by Anthropologie, and a baritone once missed a rehearsal to audition for a role on Blue’s Clues. A tenor designed websites for construction companies. A stout mezzo who described herself as “Jainist, mostly” was an extra on Glee. There was one other Jew in the choir, and he split his gigging time between the church on Park Avenue and a synagogue in Montclair—Saturdays at one and Sundays at the other, like an ambidextrous tennis player.
The job was simple: Get in, emit clear Episcopalian tones to convey Christ’s undying love, and get out. Breeze past the cookies and juice, walk-run to the subway, and untuck my blacks and whites. I wasn’t the only one who seemed to care less about the Word of God than the Direct Deposit of God. During the sermons, two sopranos played Sudoku on iPads behind their hymnals. A baritone read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which was hard to conceal, but he managed. Two altos crocheted mug cozies, and one of the basses always left the choir stalls at the top of the sermon to—he once told me—shit.
Our blue gowns were tight in the chest and looser below the waist, like maxi dresses. They buttoned in front, all the way down, and were made of a thick, starchy Protestant material. My robe was too long—I am short, and the conductor couldn’t find a robe short enough not to be a tripping hazard. In my blue gown, I walked gingerly down the aisle toward the altar—it was the first thing we did in every service, a bit of choreography to let the plutocrats know You Are In Church Now—trying desperately to stay upright.
Bow, pivot, turn, bow. Bow, pivot, turn, bow. The conductor had given us strict instructions for the processional: Walk down the aisle, ascend to the altar, bow ninety degrees, military pivot to the right, pas-de-bourrée into the choir stall, and bow once more as the clergy walks by.
One Sunday, as we were marching up the aisle in a tightly choreographed weaving pattern, I mis-pivoted. I’m not sure if it was because I was trying too hard not to trip on my gown, or if there was some Star of David-shaped constellation of neurons telling me: You do not belong here, son of Moses and Abraham. You are a Bar Mitzvah-d impostor, and you wouldn’t recognize Jesus if he were your barista. You would not tip him, you would not ask him about the whereabouts of the Holy Grail, you would not kiss his feet upon receiving the Wi-Fi password.
I’m not very religious.
But I pivoted left. Left when I was supposed to go right, with the congregation staring at me in my floor-length unisex Episcopalian frock. I tripped, fumbling my hymnal. I nearly dropped it, catching it by the back cover before it fell onto the altar. I looked back at the conductor, who was shooting tiny pupil-pellets at my forehead. There was no gasp, just a damp feeling in my crotch and a God-fearing redness in my cheeks, and time dilated as I turned back toward the congregation, wondering again—running the question through the complex set of filters in my head a thousand times in a quarter-second—why I’d decided to earn my Trader Joe’s frozen chicken tikka masala in such a God-sucking way. And what, if I couldn’t even do this, was I going to do? I was in the Precambrian period of post-college development, somewhere between bacterial overgrowth and the emergence of sentient, soft-bodied organisms. How many more spilled opportunities, stained days, tripped chances would there be?
Sanctus. Sanctus. Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth! Pleni sunt coeli et terra, et terra, et terra.
Eighteen voices, thirds on fourths on fifths. Diminished chords dissolving inward. Thirty-six mucous membranes moving in synchrony, singing for God for money. How weird is it that we moved our mouths and sounds came out, and those sounds fit with other sounds, and all of those sounds made something that helped people pray to God? Or gave them the facsimile of prayer, to which they responded with their own faint copies of our copies. Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made. We all need money, but why does making it always make us feel like contortionists? Mozart’s B Flat Major Mass, an email that ends with “Best,” the fine lines of an invoice—who isn’t manipulating their membranes, singing a dead song, faking belief?
I ran to the choir stall, opened my folder and slipped into the fourth measure. I Sanctused for $100 that day. I spent it on five boxes of Trader Joe’s chicken tikka masala, cabs to and from a gay bar, and a condom. Jesus died for this.