In the shadow of the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta, two neighboring churches co-host a homeless shelter. At 7 p.m., volunteers welcome men from the streets for a hot meal and a safe place to sleep. At 5 a.m. those men leave to spend the day outside.
When Donal Noonan started as the music director at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in November 2011 he watched the men who had left the shelter for the day mingling outside, waiting for church volunteers to hand out coffee and warm breakfast sandwiches. The men’s faces were obscured by scarves and hoods to shield them from the cold, but Noonan could still see their eyes. They looked pained. They looked bored.
Noonan likened their expressions to that of someone waiting on a curb in the cold for a bus to come. But in the case of these homeless men, the bus was never going to arrive.
He wanted to help, to give them something. He didn’t know how to find them a job or a permanent place to live. All he could offer was music.
“The life of a homeless person is very, very solitary,” Noonan said. “When you’re a music minister your job is to use music to lift people up. I knew I was pretty decent at doing that.”
It’s been three years since Noonan started the Atlanta Homeward Choir, a group of homeless men who sing together Tuesday and Thursday evenings before the shelter opens. They’ve performed before local audiences, but this Christmas they’ve been invited to entertain guests at a very special venue.
The White House. President Barack Obama’s home.
The Monday before Christmas, 19 homeless men will gather in the opulent East Wing entrance hall to sing for people touring the festively-decorated grand residence. They’re planning to belt out Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song, and other holiday standards like Silent Night.
Some are veterans. Others are recovered drug addicts. There are former inmates estranged from family. Some have never left Atlanta, let alone flown on an airplane.
“For me, just the idea of going inside the White House is completely insane,” Noonan said. “And that’s how I feel. Can you imagine how the guys in the choir feel?”
Noonan is Irish, and moved to America in 2003 when a visiting priest from a Florida church heard his choir and offered him a job. He moved to Atlanta in 2011. Three months later he started the homeless choir.
Kildare man Donal Noonan is behind the 'Homeward Choir' in the US which has sparked a nationwide trend https://t.co/r1Ba2LXbrg
— RTÉ News (@rtenews) April 5, 2015
“It gives a break from the routine…it gets me off the street a little earlier,” one choir member told RTE, Ireland’s national television broadcast, in April. “I like to sing, I like music, I was a music major in college. It’s something I like to do that I get to do that I haven’t done in like 20 years.”
It’s created a fraternity for the homeless men in downtown Atlanta, Noonan said. The guys often meet up during the day on their own to go over the songs.
“One thing I always say to the choir every year, you’re now part of a community, if you see each other on the street look out for each other,” Noonan said. “They’re very responsive to that.”
The Central Night Shelter, which houses about 100 homeless people nightly from November 1 through March 31, is run entirely on altruism. No one gets paid.
“It’s nobody’s job to be there, whoever works there is called there by their faith or sense of social justice, and that translates to the men,” said Katie Bashor, who has helped run the shelter for 33 years. “There’s a strong sense of community and I think the choir has added to that. Even the ones who aren’t involved are so proud of the guys who are. To see them up on the stage… when we have our concerts here in Atlanta, they are invited. They all come. It fosters a strong sense of community and a sense of hope. Which God knows we all need. A sense of a life beyond where I am now.”
After a concert last year where the choir singers were given standing ovations after every song, one of the men was walking back inside the shelter and looked at Bashor with tears in his eyes. “That was the best night of my life,” he told her.
“He had this moment. He’s still living on the streets, but he could take that experience and say that with utter thanks and gratitude,” she said.
Research has shown music to be a powerful tool for rehabilitation and mental health. There are several programs around the country using music therapy with the homeless. Other cities have also started homeless choirs.
“Music has a way of bringing people together in a non-threatening way, and often can open the door for more in-depth discussions and actual therapeutic interventions,” said Al Bumanis, communications director for the American Music Therapy Association.
The invitation to sing at the White House was born out of side comment Noonan made to a friend after a choir concert – “Next up, the White House,” he joked. But then he wondered how far-fetched it really was. A friend reached out to civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who sent a letter to President Obama on the choir’s behalf in September.
A few weeks ago, a White House official called Noonan to formally invite them to the White House Open House Holiday Celebration on Dec. 21.
The public’s response to the news was swift and affirming.
Southwest Airlines gifted them 20 round-trip tickets to Washington, DC. The Crowne Plaza hotel, The Hamilton, in downtown D.C. gave them a deeply discounted rate. Strangers from around the world have sent money for clothes and toiletries needed for a three-day trip. D.C. Metro-based Baron Tours is sending a bus to pick them up from the airport, take them to their events around the city, give them a tour of the nation’s capital and then transport them back to the airport.
Claudine Halabi, owner of the transportation company, was so moved when she heard about the choir on the news, she reached out directly to Noonan to offer the free rides.
“There are so many people where life threw them a hardball,” she said. “We’re in a world where so much is going on among humans … we’re here for each other. If you can’t help a fellow man, what’s the point.”
The impact of all of the support may be just as profound as being part of the choir.
“People are writing stories about them and rooting for them. To feel that kind of community support is crucial to their development. It sustains people when they’re living on the streets,” Bashor said.
As if the White House concert weren’t momentous enough, choir members will have another unforgettable experience in their host city. Noonan has requested permission from the National Parks Service to allow the men to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On that hallowed ground in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., an Atlanta native, gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“He is a symbol that anyone can do it, and [make] their dreams happen,” Noonan said. “To stand where he stood in our nation’s capital while proclaiming that we’re all the same…It’s amazing.”
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