ECRC’s music and meditation program draws hundreds of people every month
By Paul Natinsky
As churches work to find new and exciting ways to attract young people, The Eastern Catholic Re-Evangelization Center (ECRC) might have what looks like a winning a combination: music and meditation, led by a contemporary band on a Friday night…and only for an hour.
Three years ago, with the catching title, “Ignite the Spirit,” the ECRC assembled a band and began inviting members to join in singing spiritual songs and worshipping on the last Friday of each month.
Ignite the Spirit began with a roster of hired bands that performed at St. Ephrem Center, home of ECRC in Bloomfield Twp., and about 100 participants, said Patrice Abona, executive director of the ECRC. Three years later 400 to 500 people a month participate and the program moves among Chaldean churches in Southeast Michigan. Ignite also reaches out beyond the Chaldean community with one performance each year at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit each year and an April performance this year at the Father Solanus Casey Center in Detroit.
As described, “ECRC is a lay organization made up of volunteers that are committed to answering the late Pope John Paul II call to re-evangelize the world so that it may come to an intimate knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His Church.” The Ignite the Spirit program provides attendees with a chance to strengthen and celebrate their faith, but it is not a full mass, Abona pointed out. It is “a night of Eucharistic Adoration, meditation, and song.”
Ignite the Spirit is administered by a committee that sets up the events, creates themes for each monthly performance and helps with everything from song lists to venues. Alina Yaldo and Antonia Kassab co-chair the committee.
“This year we’re going to Father Solanus Casey Center, which is going to be one of our biggest nights because he was recently Beatified. For us to collaborate with the brothers of the Father Solanus Casey Center is going to be a huge night,” said Yaldo.
On a typical night, participants are allowed into the church at 7:00, “but people start coming in as early as 6:00, 6:30 just to sit and get their minds in a kind of meditative, quiet mood,” said Kassab.
“Once they enter the church, we have soft music playing. For a couple of minutes we do announcements and then right away the band starts going from one song to another. Soft music is played during the meditations,” she said.
Two priests hear confessions during the event and a Eucharistic Procession with the Monstrance takes place along with two meditations written by committee members. At the evening’s end, there is a final prayer, announcements and a meet-and-greet with the band. Yaldo said the band and committee go out to dinner after each performance.
Abona said the program is popular in part because it provides a spiritual opportunity without a “huge commitment.” At only an hour from start to finish she said people can attend an Ignite the Spirit event and then still go out and carry on with their Friday night plans. While the program is mostly attended by young adults, Abona said families and seniors turn out as well.
During the Eucharistic adoration, the band plays instruments and sings and the lyrics are projected on the wall. Each night features a theme and in addition to the music, two breaks for spiritual meditation. “It isn’t meant to be a performance, it’s meant to be a participation with everybody,” said Abona.
Ignite the Spirit is one of about 25 programs ECRC offers. Abona said ECRC was founded 17 years ago and was originally housed St. Thomas Chaldean Catholic Church in West Bloomfield before moving to its own building 12 years ago. ECRC, said Abona, is mostly known for its retreats and pilgrimages. ECRC also provides Bible study and theology classes along with healing ministries.
Ignite the Spirit relies heavily on co-chairs Kassab and Yaldo and band leader Val Nafso, who do much of the administrative and organizational work, including finding talent and setting playlists.
Ignite the Spirit began in 2015, when a Chaldean community member observed a similar program in Plymouth, said Val Nafso, who sings and is a leader in the band for Ignite the Spirit. From January 2015 until July, the monthly Friday prayer and music celebration took place at a single location with a hired band.
“Instead of hiring other people to do this, why don’t we form our own band and find out what talent we have within the community,” said Nafso. “So this committee decided to put a band together. They thought of the people, they prayed about it, they asked the Holy Spirit to help guide their decision of who they asked.”
They called Val as one of the vocalists. Val then called Brenda Bakkal, a good friend she had been singing in choir with “forever.”
They contacted three others, a pianist Alana Bahoura, Dillon Atisha for drums and Matthew Matti for guitar. There were originally five of them and then two seminarians who were only supposed to sing for one month but liked it and are still singing with the band, although one seminarian is now a priest.
“At the beginning they told us we had a few months to plan our first night and get things together,” said Nafso. They first met late March, early April, right after Easter and started talking and had a practice for the first time as a band. The first Ignite the Spirit performance was July of 2015 at Holy Martyrs.
“We had had a few months to try and figure out what to do, so we decided to pick some of the most popular songs from the radio,” said Nafso. “We got some recommendations from the committee. They write the meditation each month and they’re the ones who do the setup for the night. The band takes care of the music and their stuff and the committee takes care of the other stuff.”
The committee gave the band a recommendation for songs and band members picked 10. They methodically learned them, one-by-one figuring out how to play together.
“There were a few of us that knew each other in the band and few of us that didn’t. So, we were just trying to figure each other out and kind of learn how to mesh and try to figure out how to trust each other with the music,” said Nafso. After four or five practices, they began to play all the songs well. “We were starting to hear the sound, it kind of came together.”
They continued practicing until July, which was the first big night. “Those 10 songs were the only 10 songs we knew,” said Nafso. Every month the band committed to learning two new songs. Now they have a 62-song playlist.
Last year, the band added two more to the band. Rajaa Sheena plays bass and Andrew Mattia drums, electric and acoustic guitar. The additions allow for versatility and fill in if someone is missing.
Most of the playlist is Christian contemporary music, including selections from popular artists such as Chris Tomlin, Matt Maher, Hillsong United and Elevation Worship, said Nafso. She said Ignite the Spirit has become more sophisticated, both spiritually and musically, since its founding three years ago.
“We play mostly contemporary Christian music. We look for depth in the songs,” said Nafso. “At this point, we look for songs that have deeper meaning and Catholic undertones. A lot of the music out there doesn’t have the depth we’re looking for. They’re not clap-to-the-beat type songs. They’re very meditative. We like to pick songs from their song list that they know will fit, and that will take the worshippers into an in-depth worship of God.”
Nafso recalls the initial songs the group learned and looks back on them as a bit silly in tone compared to challenging numbers from bands such as Elevation Worship.
Initially, the band practiced weekly, now it is down to twice a month, said Nafso. However, Ignite the Spirit has become much more organized and efficient than they were when they started. The theme, song list and practice dates are set one week after an Ignite event.
With a 62-song repertoire, Ignite the Spirit stopped learning new songs last September, with the idea of perfecting their current songbook.
But that doesn’t mean the band has ceased expanding its horizons. In addition to the Sacred Heart and Casey Center performances, Ignite the Spirit will play the Strides for Seminarians event, an annual memorial walk at the Detroit Zoo that raises money for seminary students.
While Ignite the Spirit is a contemporary experience aimed at bringing young people to the church, the underlying message to meditate on the faith is retained throughout the event.
“It’s a prayerful night. It’s a very moving night. If you come into a night of Ignite and you walk out not having cried or cheered up at least once, then you must have missed something, because it is a very powerful experience,” said Abona.
“We’re a family and the trust that we’ve built through Ignite and the faith that we’ve grown into because of the music…It is just a really beautiful way to pray,” said Nafso.
“I’ve always been a church girl, but there is something powerful about our night. Logistically, as one of our heads and as chair of the program, I’m always running around and find myself lost...I have to sit down and actually say this is for me as well, just to bring me closer to Christ. The Holy Spirit is powerful and it’s literally in my heart to want to be closer to Christ. It’s moving and it’s powerful,” said Kassab.