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By Brian Keepers
I was uncertain as to how many people would show up. Arthur (Art) Cirulis had only been in the community for eight years, and he was quiet by nature, one who often kept to himself. So it made sense to have his memorial service in the chapel at Prairie Ridge, the care facility that was Art’s home for the final part of his life.
It was a pleasant surprise to walk in and find the chapel full. I scanned the sea of faces–many of them fellow residents of the home but also many who were part of our church. It was more than I expected to turn out on this blustery January evening to “accompany our brother with singing.”
The service begins and I stand and speak the first words of the funeral liturgy: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
I read some Scripture. Then we reach for the makeshift song books tucked beneath the chairs, and we fumble them open to #79 (“Because He Lives”) and rise to our feet to sing.
Art’s daughter, Anita, delivers a beautiful and heartfelt eulogy. No strokes of airbrushing or sentimentality. Her words are honest and winsome, naming the beauty and brokenness of her father.
Then something I’ve never experienced before at a funeral.
We hear Art’s voice.
No, not from the grave! That would be something for sure.
We hear his voice from a handful of audio recordings he made several years ago. Recorded for this day. The funeral director holds a microphone close to the little CD player in the back of the room, and Art’s thick Latvian accent crackles through the speakers.
“I want to thank you for being here to bid me farewell….”
There are several other recordings–one of Art singing with his sonorous baritone voice. All the others are of him playing his violin.
Art loved his violin. He was self-taught, learned to play by ear as a boy growing up in Latvia. When Latvia was occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, Art was inducted into the Latvian Legion under German control. He was carted off into a displaced persons camp for three years before coming to the United States in 1949 as a refugee, sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Art enrolled at Sioux Falls College without speaking hardly any English. He would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in music and go on to earn a Master of Arts from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He married, had children, and would become a talented and beloved music teacher.
I listen to the recording of Art playing his violin, the sweet melody of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” fills the chapel, and tears stream down my cheeks.
I think about a story he told me a couple months before he died. It was the last substantial conversation I had with Art as his new pastor, before he would slip in and out of consciousness and really begin to shut down.
When Art arrived to Ellis Island, he came with nothing but a suitcase, his precious violin, and a wounded spirit from witnessing the horrors of war and prison. The immigration official looked at his old, dilapidated violin case.
“Is that yours?’ he asked.
“Yes, Sir.” Art whispered.
“Show me,” he said, perhaps unconvinced.
Art knelt down, gingerly opened the case and took out the violin and the bow. He stood to his feet, positioned the violin beneath his chin and lightly touched the bow to the strings. He closed his eyes. And then he began to play.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. O purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain! America, America, God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!
The immigration official let him finish playing the entire song. Art had it memorized, played the whole thing by heart. It was the very first song he played on American soil.
I snap back from that memory to hear the recording with Art’s violin holding the last lingering note of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
I smile, look down at my sermon manuscript, blink away tears, and go on to preach. We finish out the service with a marvelous poem by another one of Art’s daughters, Debra. She has her father’s gift with words. Then one final recording of Art reading a farewell poem titled “Parting” before I deliver the benediction.
As I walk out the sliding doors of Prairie Ridge into the cold, clear night, all I can think about is Art playing “America the Beautiful” before the immigration official, leaving behind a life of tragedy in search for a new life of healing and freedom.
In the preface to a book of poems he published, Art writes: “I am very grateful to America for giving me an opportunity to enjoy life again and freedom and giving me a very desirable citizenship.”
Art knew his ultimate citizenship was in heaven, but his U.S. citizenship mattered greatly. He never once took it for granted. I’m not sure how Art would fare with the “merit system” and all this confusing talk in Washington right now about who we let into this country and who we don’t.
I’m not sure what the President would say behind closed doors about a poor Latvian POW who came with nothing but an old violin, yet who has given so much of himself and his love of music to others in the places he’s lived. All I know is that Art found a home here, a new life, and I’m grateful to have been his pastor, if only for a short while.
Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, IA.