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Famed Tibetan Singer Reflects on Her Meeting with Pope Francis

Posted on October 9, 2015 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Scents of turmeric, ginger and garlic fill Yungchen Lhamo’s railroad flat as she serves a Tibetan meal of onion grass and mushroom stew to a visitor on a recent August afternoon.  When the meal is finished, Yungchen pushes aside floral cotton hangings that sub for doors and points with pride to Buddhist tapestries painted by her brother and hung from her small living room’s walls. 

It is left for the visitor to notice a photo of Yungchen with the Dalai Lama that memorializes the many times she sang for him.  Tucked away also are hundreds of news clippings and photos with headliners – Paul McCartney beaming with his arm around her, Bono and Yungchen belting out a duet, Peter Gabriel, who signed her with his Realworld Record label.

But the meeting that excited her most this year, she said, was when she joined 150 fellow immigrants served by Catholic Charities to welcome Pope Francis at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem on September 25th.

Yungchen, whose birth name translates as “Goddess of Melody”, has been named the world’s leading Tibetan vocalist.  She takes traditional Buddhist devotionals, funks it up and sings with world-class musicians in more than 70 nations. Yet when she is not performing in Paris, London or Rome she volunteers to sing with some of the homeless and mentally ill who make up ten-percent of Kingston’s population, a struggling upstate town.  Similar to Pope Francis who swapped out the Papal palace for a guesthouse apartment, this famed international soprano deliberately decided to live a modest life of service. 

Yungchen’s story of why she left Chinese–occupied Tibet is not so different than that of many Tibetan exiles.  Nor is the story of her sister who received asylum status thanks to Yungchen and Catholic Charities’ help.  But these are not stories she wants to talk about.  Instead, she wants to speak of what excites her about meeting Pope Francis when he visits immigrants served by Catholic Charities this September.

“I meet frightened people wherever I go, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, and I bring them to Catholic Charities for help,” she says, pushing aside knee-length black hair.  “When they get there they seem lightened, they see a door opened by Catholic Charities.” 

Collaborating with so many people in so many places is more than just about making music.  It’s about bringing a message of unity and peace, she says, during a time darkened by oppression.  This, she adds, is the basis of her Buddhist beliefs.

“Religion should not separate us but instead bring us together,” she says.  “In Pope Francis we have the star of goodness to come.”

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