By Sarah Stall
Erin Guinup (University of Puget Sound class of ’96) was at church, listening to a sermon about the growing refugee crisis in Europe, when she was inspired to take action. She couldn’t help the thousands of displaced people suffering far away, but she could do something to help local immigrants and refugees feel welcome in their new communities. Initially, she thought of teaching English, but as a choral conductor, vocal coach, and classically trained soprano, she had something more unique to offer. Music, after all, is an international language. In 2016, she approached Tacoma Community House with the idea of gathering people together to sing.
Three years and nearly 30 performances later, the Tacoma Refugee Choir is still growing. Its nearly 400 members represent 44 countries. They are a mix of longtime Tacoma residents and newly arrived refugees and immigrants, including seniors, students, and families. They perform concerts in and around their community – even sharing their songs and stories at TEDxSeattle – and their goal is always the same: to inspire hope, unity, and action.
“We have become a family for people who often come to the United States without a family,” Erin says. “Knowing that someone cares about your success can be really powerful. Too many people don’t have that.”
Anyone can join the Tuesday-night rehearsals, with no experience needed. Some come because they love to sing; others because they long for connection. Erin recalls one Kenyan man who showed up because he thought his kids would enjoy it. She encouraged him to join in, even though he insisted he didn’t sing, and by the end of the night, he was hooked. “He was saying the other day that it changed his life,” she says. “He didn’t know that he could sing. He didn’t realize how much of a voice he had. Singing together gives people courage.”
In order to keep the choir going, Erin decided to establish the Tacoma Refugee Choir as a nonprofit organization in August 2017. This presented a steep learning curve. “There are so many things I didn’t know,” she says. “I hadn’t ever run a nonprofit before. I wasn’t experienced in fundraising. I never saw myself doing these things. But the truth is, we can all do something.”
After a rocky start, which included moments last year when Erin wasn’t sure how the group would survive from one month to the next, the choir is gaining traction. That’s happening, she believes, because choir members are taking more ownership and making the group their own. They’re suggesting music pieces and performance opportunities, and, more recently, working together to write original songs – one of which debuted at Tacoma’s State of the City Address, held on campus in March.
Giving members the space to share their experiences and validating those experiences is at the heart of the Tacoma Refugee Choir. “This program that’s all about community has taught me how to build a community and how much broader my sense of community could be,” Erin says. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that we’ve created a culture of love.”
It’s that culture of love that creates a social safety net for the choir’s members. “When you love people, you’re going to help them when you can,” she says. “If someone is out of work, you’re going to help them write a new resume and watch for job opportunities for them. You might offer to help them study for their exam so they can advance their career. You’re going to support that person’s new business. You’re going to watch for houses for the woman who can’t find an affordable place to live. You’re going to connect them to resources because you care about them. You see opportunities when you’re with them.”
Even as a music student at Puget Sound, Erin knew she could move people with music, but she never imagined that her music would have the impact it has had through the choir. “I loved the music I made earlier in my career. I love telling stories, and I love the sound of beautiful music,” she says. “But I love seeing someone’s face light up and seeing someone empowered when they take those words for themselves and let them vibrate out of their own mouth. I love seeing what happens when we hear all those vibrations in the air together, and the joy that bubbles up out of every single person as they take that message for their own. It fills my soul. When we’re really in that human place, we’re not unkind to one another.”
Sarah Stall is a contributor to and copyeditor for Arches magazine at University of Puget Sound. A one-time Walt Disney World cast member and lifelong Cleveland sports fan, she now calls Old Town home and has been a member of Puget Sound’s communications team since 2006.