Tapestry

'Can I get a honk honk?': The sound of worship in the pandemic

Over the last seven years, teams of faculty and student researchers at Michigan State University and Ohio State University have gathered and cataloged hundreds of audio recordings. The sonic archive documents the diversity of everyday religious life.

The American Religious Sounds Project documents the diversity of everyday religious life

Vocal teacher Sandi Hammond directs members of the Butterfly Music Transgender Chorus during a rehearsal at a church in Cambridge, Mass. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Segment originally aired December 12, 2021.

What does religion sound like? That's the question driving the American Religious Sounds Project.

Over the last seven years, teams of faculty and student researchers at Michigan State University and Ohio State University have gathered and cataloged hundreds of audio recordings. The sonic archive documents the diversity of everyday religious life through field recordings. 

Tapestry spoke to co-directors Amy DeRogatis, a professor of religious studies at Michigan State University and Isaac Weiner, an associate professor of religious and comparative studies at Ohio State University. 

Through these field recordings, the project aims to document the diversity of everyday religious practice. For example, one of the recordings is from the Sherbrooke Mennonite Church in Vancouver, a church with services in both English and Korean. 

"It's very evocative to hear this, especially when thinking about what many people think a typical Mennonite service sounds like. This is what it actually sounds like," said DeRogatis. 

Religion of the racetrack

The recordings also demonstrate how religion is being practiced where people are. 

One of the recordings is from ShadyBowl Speedway in DeGraff, Ohio. In it, you can hear Chaplain Kermit Wilson leading a prayer with several race car drivers before a race. 

Weiner was at the raceway for that recording and describes it as "religion of the racetrack."

"You feel the rumbling and the zoom and the racing of the cars in your body. It's a deeply embodied, visceral experience," Wiener added. 

"It offered us an entry into thinking about religion as something not formal but really deeply integrated into people's lives."

Can I get a 'honk-honk?'

Today, the pandemic has dramatically shifted how people practice religion. For the researchers involved with the American Religious Sounds project, it presented an opportunity to document these changes in real time. 

The project put out an open, crowd-sourced call to invite people all across North America to submit their own recordings of how their religious and spiritual lives were changing. 

Amy DeRogatis, a professor of religious studies at Michigan State University and Isaac Weiner, an associate professor of religious and comparative studies at Ohio State University.  (Lauren Pond)

They received close to 200 recordings, including a recording from a drive-in Easter Sunday service in a parking lot in Walnut Grove, Mo. where parishioners used their car horns to shout "Amen."

Weiner said he admires how this congregation used sound and noise to make themselves known to each other.

"The horn says there's a reason why we left our home today. We could have stayed in our home but even though we can't physically be next to each other in the pews, we're still gathering in community."

The American Religious Sounds Project invites the listener to hear religion as something that people "do" in all kinds of different spaces, as opposed to something people "are."

The researchers believe that sound can help us consider religious practice in a new way. "Often when we think about religion, we think about texts and institutions and interior beliefs and thoughts," DeRogatis said.

"But sound brings out into the open what people do, how they practice religion. What are the ways in which they act out their faith?" 

Written and produced by Kent Hoffman.

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