Suzzy Roche grew up singing in church, where she perfected choral harmonies with her sister Maggie before they and a third sister, Terre, created the angelic-sounding group The Roches.
So Suzzy understood the power of prayer. And she had wanted to record a collection of prayers - specifically, prayers expressing personal feelings, whether they came from organized religion or not. Speaking from her home in New York City, Suzzy explains, "Finding out what prayers meant to individual people, that was really the thing I was interested in."
The result is "Zero Church," a beautiful and remarkably moving album created during a six-week seminar at the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Among its 18 entries are a song of thanks for freedom from a former Sudanese slave, a Vietnam veteran's plea for atonement for his wartime actions, and a mother's reaction to hearing another mother's pain upon learning that her son (Matthew Shepard) had been beaten to death because he was gay.
Also included are a Shaker hymn, a Hebrew chant, a verse from the Book of Jeremiah, and author Ruben Martinez's "migrant prayer" - prayers of joy, sorrow, and hope for redemption, all submitted by people who had written or found these verses and made spiritual connections.
Suzzy hadn't heard about the arts institute, founded by actor-playwright Anna Deavere Smith, until she was invited to apply in early 2000. When she learned what it was, she knew it was the place where her concept could come to life. Ms. Smith "has created this community of people from all different walks of life, and that is so rare," Suzzy says, noting that in New York City, "there's more of a co-existing and not necessarily an active dialogue."
Many of the prayers came from a "core audience" of community members who agreed to participate in the dialogues and projects. Sometimes, they spread the word. Suzzy learned about ex-slave Francis Bok from a nun in the group. His is the only spoken-word prayer on the album.
"A woman just called me on the phone and said, 'Meet me in five minutes.' And there was Francis, and he told us his incredible story."
Much of the rehearsing for the album occurred at 0 Church Street in Cambridge, Mass., which happens to be a church. But the album's contents give the title a larger context and listeners an understanding that faith is not confined to houses of worship - though Suzzy agrees that for some people, organized religion "is where they sustain their faith. I didn't really have an agenda of what I was trying to say, 'cause it's not me," she says. "It's obviously a much bigger subject than me."
Suzzy and Maggie wrote much of the music and do a good deal of the gospel or delicate choral singing, aided by Esaye Barnwell of the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock; Lynette DuPree, an institute artist; and siblings Terre and David Roche.
Suzzy included only one prayer of her own, "New York City," which she wrote for a firefighters' benefit well after the album's original release date: Sept. 11, 2001. A later date already had been picked as she walked her dog that morning and witnessed the day's devastating events.
Suzzy doesn't belong to a specific church, but she notes, "I'm always attracted and drawn to people who have faith. Faith is really the thing. Because I'm always losing faith."
She doesn't know if she'll make another album like this one, but it's possible. "You could go on forever doing this," she says. "The world is just filled with prayers."