Modesto group has a gift for the dying, the seriously ill and their families

Watch Modesto Threshold Singers at Hospice House

The Modesto Threshold Singers bring peace and comfort to patients and families at Alexander Cohen Hospice House in Hughson.
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The Modesto Threshold Singers bring peace and comfort to patients and families at Alexander Cohen Hospice House in Hughson.

Five women walked into the Alexander Cohen Hospice House on Tuesday morning. They brought only folding stools, water bottles and three-ring binders. Through their beautiful voices and a unique repertoire of songs, they left feelings of peace, comfort and — in an environment that will take all it can get — even joy.

Bernadette Burns, Arleen Allsup, Linda McFelter and mother and daughter Ruby and Julie TenBrink belong to the Modesto Threshold Singers, which has grown to 12 members and counting. It launched last year as a chapter of the Threshold Choir, which was formed in the East Bay city of El Cerrito in 2000 and has grown to more than 200 communities around the world.

Threshold was formed by Kate Munger to offer a “calm and focused presence at the bedside, with gentle voices, simple songs and sincere kindness,” to those on the threshold between life and death, its website says.

The local group has only one “regular gig,” as Burns put it, and that is Tuesday mornings at the Community Hospice home in Hughson. It is about to begin evening singing at English Oaks Convalescent & Rehabilitation Center in Modesto, she said. And if it can grow to about 20 members, the singers would send small groups into private homes upon request.

“Some groups do that — last-minute singing at homes,” said Burns, who’s the director of the local chapter. “Right now, that would be a scramble for us.”

At Hospice House, the women start by singing in the common spaces. If patient doors are closed, they respect families’ privacy and will not knock. At doors that are open, a member will gently inquire with family about singing in the room or from just outside.

Tuesday, brothers Mark and Ames Countryman welcomed the Threshold Singers into the room of their mother, Alta Kiernan, who lay sleeping. Gathered around her bed, the women softly sang several pieces from a songbook that almost entirely is written by Threshold Choir members and shared among the chapters.

One song is personalized when the singers have a patient’s name. To Kiernan, they sang, “Alta, you are beautiful, Alta, you are strong. Unique and precious woman, you’ve been perfect all along. Alta, hear our loving song.”

The 94-year-old’s sons listened. Heads bowed, eyes watering, clearly moved. Afterward, Tom Countryman said that if his mother had passed away while surrounded by those angelic voices, her family could have asked for nothing better.

“Those women are doing a very, very good thing, for us, as well as our mom,” he said, sitting with his brother on the patio of their mother’s room.

“They’re singing from their souls,” his brother Ames chimed in.

Burns said it was about 10 years ago that she first heard about Munger’s Threshold Choir, which has spread across the U.S. and into Mexico, Canada, England, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia and Cambodia.

She and fellow founding chapter members Ruby TenBrink and Sharon Arpoika all are longtime members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County. About four years back, it seemed like once a month, someone in the fellowship was dying, Burns said. The women would sing — typically hymnals — to the dying in their hospital rooms, but doubted their effectiveness in bringing peace and comfort. “Sharon and I went, ‘We have to do this Threshold thing’.”

They visited a chapter in Sacramento and felt an immediate sisterhood, Burns said. Then Munger came to Modesto to lead a workshop and help launch the chapter. The group rehearses two Sundays a month at the UU Fellowship on Kiernan Avenue, practicing quiet singing and blending their voices.

“Because we’re not a denominational thing, not associated with any religion of any type, the words are about common themes that are held in honor by most religions: love and gratitude and kindness and compassion and healing. Grace. It’s very humanistic,” Burns said of the Threshold Choir songbook.

“But at the same token, there’s a handful of songs in Hebrew in the repertoire, a couple in Hindi or Sanskrit, some in Latin, some in Spanish. One is directly from a Buddhist text: ‘May you dwell in the heart, may you be free from suffering, may you be healed, may you be at peace.’ Anybody can hear that and be moved by it. You don’t have to say, ‘And now, we will sing a Buddhist text.’ We don’t do that.”

The singers also don’t charge anything. None of the Threshold Choir chapters do. The parent group’s website does accept donations to cover expenses, and has CDs of its original music for sale. But what they do at Hospice House is a gift.

“We are very grateful for them to come over here,” Hospice House administrator Elvira Garcia said Tuesday. Other staff added that the facility is fortunate enough to have a couple of other groups also regularly visit to sing. The women’s music brings serenity to not just patients and their families, but staff as well, Garcia said. “They really enjoy them. It’s amazing, and they’re beautiful songs.”

Modesto Threshold member Lorrie Freitas said she and sister singers get a lot from it, too.

“When you’re singing, you’re also singing to yourself and each other. So we benefit while we’re singing. It’s calming to us as well. It’s peaceful.”

To learn more about the Threshold Choir and the Modesto chapter, go to https://thresholdchoir.org, email modestothresholdsingers@gmail.com or call Burns at 209-441-8088.

Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.