Singing with a Purpose: Saint John’s Hospice Choir Breaks the Stigmas of Homelessness
Barry Martin, Program Director (and part-time musician) for Saint John’s Hospice (SJH), wanted to give the residents of SJH and The Good Shepherd Program more to do than the normal day-to-day—something that would build community and fellowship, and bring people together. Perhaps, he thought, they could start a band. And so, the Good Shepherd Singers were born.
Their first gig was in 2018 at the annual Philadelphia Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day program. Since that time, they have performed at a variety of functions such as Christmas parties for Catholic Social Services, the monthly Bishop’s Dinner at SJH, the Archbishop’s Benefit for Children (ABC) Christmas Party and at various fundraisers throughout the year.
The group provides a healthy outlet and a sense of belonging for the resident musicians, while helping to erase the stigma associated with those experiencing homelessness.
“The Good Shepherd Singers gives [the residents] something to look forward to—something in their week that is out of the ordinary and makes them feel special,” Martin said. “They get a lot of positive attention through preforming. It’s one more supportive activity to keep them sober, focused and connected, not only to SJH but, to the community and city as a whole.”
The size of the group has fluctuated over the years and has a steady core group of three or four at any given time. The Good Shepherd Singers currently include resident Edwin Howard, alumni Herb Holden and Ronald Waiters, with Martin and case manager David White on the guitar. Their songs consist of R&B, ballads, traditional, gospel, holiday songs, and original music written by Martin himself.
Even when a member graduates from the program and moves into stable housing, they can still continue to be part of the group, which many do.
Waiters, who has been in and out of residency at Good Shepherd for the last few years, credits the group for reminding him to empathize with others and helping him with his recovery.
“I’ve been clean for six years, and I credit it to being part of the Good Shepherd Singers, which helps me stay focused and stay clean,” he said. “I am responsible for showing up for practice because they look forward to me being a part of this. I’m always excited to sing with these guys.”
The Good Shepherd Program, run by SJH, is a 12-bed residence for individuals who have HIV/AIDS. SJH is a nationally recognized leader in providing essential residential and day services including shelter, meals, mail services, clean clothing, case management, medical assistance, and medical and behavioral healthcare services to individuals and families experiencing homelessness and poverty. Each year, more than 250 men experiencing homelessness receive shelter at SJH, Good Shepherd, and the overnight emergency shelter referred to as the Coffee House.
The Good Shepherd Singers practice every Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. in the chapel at SJH. Since the group’s inception, Martin noticed how many members of the group cherish the Good Shepherd Singers and the comradery it gives them.
For Howard, singing with the group is therapeutic.
“Music helps heal. We have so much anger and hate in the world,” Howard said. “Sometimes, you just need to hear some love. Singing in this choir helps you strengthen your community, and the music we sing helps empower us. I feel joy when we sing together. It is fun for me, and I am having the best time.”
Holden echoed similar sentiments when asked what singing does for him.
“It adds to my sense of purpose. It gives me something to look forward to on Wednesdays when we rehearse.”
Not only do the Good Shepherd Singers provide fulfillment and empowerment to its members—they address the negative preconceptions and misconceptions about those experiencing homelessness. Through preforming, this small but mighty group alters the public perception of the residents of SJH and homelessness in general.
The Good Shepherd Singers will perform at this year’s ABC Christmas Party the week before Christmas, and will continue performing at the monthly Bishop’s Dinners.
The group is a community within a community and welcomes anyone to join in and be a part of something special.
“If you’re in a dark place, this is the place to come,” Holden said. “If you want to find yourself or find somewhere to belong, come here. We sing uplifting music, and we bring happiness.”
“And it’s not just about the singing,” Waiters said. “We have resources that we can plug you into and help you with. Especially here at Good Shepherd, where I can speak from personal experience.”
For more information about the Good Shepherd Singers or to make a donation to Saint John’s Hospice, visit www.saintjohnshospice.org.