The human voice is a powerful instrument. And when 25 voices in a traditional choir combine with the largest pipe organ in Central Washington, that power is multiplied. The music soars to the vaulted ceilings of Grace of Christ Presbyterian Church and penetrates to your very bones.
It lifts your spirit no matter what you believe.
It’s a sound from a simpler time. A time when most everybody went to church. A time when people seemed to argue less and compromise more.
Jon Waite has been the organist at Grace of Christ on Yakima Avenue for 34 years. It’s a big job. The size of an organ is gauged by the number of pipes. This one has an impressive 3,600 pipes.
He’s been playing the organ his whole adult life.
“I grew up in a very fundamentalist church. We didn’t have pipe organs. When I went to college, I heard a pipe organ and I was just infatuated with the sound,” he said with a smile.“It makes me think of heaven.”
Choir director and conductor Jason Wixson came to Yakima about a year ago and has an extensive music background. “I’m trained more as a solo singer, so I’ve done a lot of operas and things like that. I sang in Germany over the summer and I was just in Toledo doing Verdi’s Macbeth,” he said, as we sat in his office on a Sunday, next to the choir practice room. Through the door, we could hear singers warming up as they prepared for the service.
A choir can be magical, Wixson said. “Part of it is having so many voices all combined to one purpose — and also live music. In a lot of contemporary church music today they use tracks — canned music — and they play on top of it. Here it’s all happening live and it’s exciting because you never know what’s going to happen. There’s adrenaline to some degree. I know I have it, being the conductor.”
Many large churches feature more modern sounds — singers accompanied by guitars, keyboard and drums.
But if you long for that goosebump-inducing, old-school sound, you’re in luck. Grace of Christ is one of a number of churches in Yakima with both a traditional choir (traditional choirs have more singers and sing more traditional types of music) and a pipe organ. Those churches include St. Paul’s Cathedral, Wesley United Methodist Church, Central Lutheran, Englewood Christian, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on S. 38th Ave. — and there are probably more.
“We’ve been able to keep it (the choir and organ) going,” Waite said. “So many churches have lost the traditional flavor. It’s been a struggle at times. But we’re lucky to have it.”
Some organs in town have gone silent, like the one at Mt. Olive Lutheran.
Nationwide, organs aren’t the only things that are disappearing from churches. The congregations are, too.
A Gallup poll found the percentage of Americans who say they belong to a church, synagogue or mosque is now at an all-time low, averaging just 50% in 2018. From 1937 to 1976, U.S. church membership averaged around 70%. According to Gallup, “the decline in church membership is consistent with larger societal trends … and an increasing proportion of Americans with no religious preference.”
Grace of Christ Pastor Bill Williamson said he’s noticed the trend, but added, “I don’t think it indicates a decrease of anyone’s faith, but it’s more of a lack of trust in the institution — people are more skeptical.”
Another reason for the decline, he thinks, is “churches used to be a part of the town square, which was the local hangout for people in the town. Nowadays people find other options on Sunday morning.”
Millennials, those who came of age at the turn of the millennium in 2000, are even less likely to be church members. Just 42% of them belong. But Williamson remains confident, however. The congregation at Grace of Christ Presbyterian is 400 strong. He attributes that partly to the draw of the old-school ways.
“The organ, the choir, the stained -glass windows — It’s awesome. It’s powerful,” he said.
He has daughters who are in their late 20s and early 30s, and says they’re coming back around. “When they go to a church they like the traditional, liturgical feel of a church,” he said. “A lot of the younger folks are being attracted to that old time religion.”
Grace of Christ doesn’t use amplification for the choir or organ, so the music is essentially acoustic. “The power of the human voice unamplified is very different than hearing someone singing into a microphone,” Wixson said.
Many members of the Grace of Christ choir have been there a long time, but they do have younger members, including one young family — and a 16-year old who goes to Davis. “I think it’s good to get younger people in to appreciate this music and carry on the tradition, otherwise it’s dying,” Wixson said.
Kim Button, organist at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on S. 38th, has been playing for nearly 50 years and said “It’s very majestic. There’s nothing like a pipe organ ... it’s sad there’s a nationwide shortage of organists.”
So, if you have a spare Sunday and want to hear something that’s magical and increasingly rare, check out these sounds — before they’re gone.