John Alston on the delight of mutuality when entering fully into relationships with those we serve

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

When John Alston talks about the kids, 130 or so boys and girls that comprise the Chester Children’s Chorus (CCC) he directs, you understand that his life, his world, and his joy, is fundamentally mixed up with theirs.

While there is a healthy separation of identity, there doesn’t appear to be a real separation of the heart. The daily trials, joys and sorrows the young people face are deeply intertwined with John. He teaches them not only to sing Mozart’s requiems and Bach’s concertos, but to imagine the lives, struggles, and historical context of the composers. That music provides solace, opportunity, strength, and creative freedom is hugely important. But, John is quick to add, it alone will never be enough.

The challenges faced by the children of Chester, PA where there have already been 23 murders this year, in a city of just over 30,000 people, are enormous. The occurrence of violent crime in this city, positioned between Philadelphia and Wilmington, DE, is 307% higher than the nation. Coupled with high rates of poverty, incarceration, and under- performing schools, you get a sense of what these kids must overcome.

But the real crime, John says, is that people often don’t seem to care. Some of Philadelphia’s wealthiest suburbs are less than five miles from Chester. Yet neighboring communities, and the world at large, has turned a blind eye to Chester and cities like it. The problems are immense, but fixable. How can we accept a future, John asks, where children who have the same potential don’t get the same chance at life as their more privileged peers?

Guided by an inexplicable force, John left his prominent role in academia as professor of music at prestigious Swarthmore College. In this clip, he shakes his head at the naïve arrogance that moved him to march into Chester’s elementary schools boasting that he was going to start a choir.

The power and the beauty in John’s story is that he allowed his arrogance to be transformed as he entered into relationship with those first seven boys who, he says, saved his life.

John, son of an absent, alcoholic father, and a newly immigrated Filipino mother, found his identity in music when he joined the Newark boys choir. It gave his life direction and helped him defy the odds by setting him on a path towards higher education.

On one level, John’s story is one of man who wants to pay forward the opportunities given to him, to support children who felt the same insecurity as he did.

On another level, it’s the story of a well-intentioned man getting ‘woke.’ John had to learn about social justice, about the American policies that segregated, impoverished and incarcerated a whole race of people, about the complicated responsibility and minefield of advocating for the children that our nation has tried to forget.

But most of all, this is the story of what happens when we allow ourselves to be penetrated by those we’ve come to “serve.” This is a story of mutuality. Of delight. Of the light that bursts forth when a choir director talks about “falling in love” with his students.

This holiday season, this story joins the annuals of the messy, complicated, human dramas that connect all honest storytelling. The real journey, you see, transcends how we conceptualize “helper / receiver” or “healer / broken,” even of “needy / privileged.” John Alston’s story is about letting go the false divisions that tell us we are unequal and separate, and of simply learning how to love.

If you are in the area, go see John and his amazing kids: Chester Children’s Chorus.

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