At DC’s Kennedy Center for the performing arts yesterday, February 3, 2013, fittingly enough in the 50th-year Anniversary of the death of President Kennedy, eight choirs from around the country joined together to perform “A Musical Remembrance of the Life and Service of John F. Kennedy.” The program involved an above-stage jumbotron showing film footage capturing highlights of JFK’s life even as the choirs and a full orchestra presented the world premier of “Let the Word Go Forth.” Almost 350 choristers sung lyrics borrowing words from the “Ask now what your country can do for you . . .” speech and verbatim excerpts of other addresses by JFK.
The program closed with a stirring rendition of “America the Beautiful.” One can only imagine how moving that anthem sounded then, as lifted up on the soaring voices of hundreds of mostly young choristers in the red and gold Concert Hall. I was certainly touched.
And yet, during the long final ovations, I noticed that probably more than one-third of the Concert Hall had remained empty. Despite the fact that ticket-holders entered with “General Admission” (i.e., free) tickets, there were large sections with so many vacant seats throughout the performance.
I later wondered how much the program meant to the audience inside or would have meant to the world outside. Granted that the composer of “Let the Word Go Forth,” the music conductor and organizers of the program, and the older choristers must have retained some feelings that had ever inspired them from the days of Camelot. Maybe a few of the very young members of the high school choirs singing there also somehow shared the kind of inspiration that had lifted up us older RPCVs and many who faithfully read “Peace Corps Worldwide.”
Of course, I had been abroad for almost six weeks prior to yesterday’s Kennedy Center program and had no way of seeing any recent notices about the coming production. Only by receiving tickets from a fellow church chorister yesterday morning did I get to visit the Kennedy Center. I wonder even now if other RPCVs and PC staffers residing in DC had learned about the performance and had been in the audience with me.
Despite such lingering unknowns, I arose this morning coming to a saddening conclusion: that, though still recalled by many, the aura surrounding JFK — and his Peace Corps — seems to be fading away. Or at least what inspired us older RPCVs back in the ’60s and ’70s (and perhaps even later) may be growing dimmer.
Of course, I know that far more people today are willing to enroll as PCVs than there are slots in Peace Corps’ current budget. That’s true. And yet, neither today’s media nor most current opinion leaders and members on Congressional Hill pay much mind to our beloved service program. The torch that JFK eloquently described as being handed to his and our generation (and whose exact words were sung yesterday), that torch is barely flickering.
Let’s hope that the book literature produced by so many RPCVs and articles about the Peace Corps — such as what John Coyne and Marian Haley Beil are now putting online — will bolster the legacy, even prolong the spirit that may rekindle the kind of vision and willingness to work for peace that once moved the Congress and certainly touched and motivated so many of us, so long ago.