I would like to introduce you to an amazing student here at The School of Theology and Ministry. Sarah Turner is in her last year of study toward her Master of Arts in Transformational Leadership and is currently a student worker for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialog. Known on campus as a hymnologist she is often tapped as a resource in liturgical preparation. I trust that you will be inspired and provoked by her passion and prose.
Peace Is Possible,
Bishop Edward Donalson, III | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
I was about five years old when I declared my first favorite hymn: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” While the reasons for my choice are beyond me now, I guess that it had a lot to do with the repetition of the word “holy,” a word I could easily and quickly read each time it occurred in the hymn, and the relatively simple tune. Nearly three decades later, my favorite hymns number in the dozens. Even though “Holy, Holy, Holy” is currently not among them, I still smile for the five-year-old who was excited to sing it on a Sunday morning and who found her way into singing the community’s song.
In recent years, encouraging and enabling congregational/group singing in and outside of the context of liturgy has become one of my passions. This passion arose from enjoying singing with others, starting as a young girl to singing hymns in the car with my mother as a teenager. As an adult, I discovered gifts of profound connection with people with whom I sang, spiritual experiences that surprised me, and hymns and other songs that travel with me like good friends. I love to perform as a soloist and in choirs, but my deepest joy comes when I help others find their voices in the literal and metaphorical song and enable and empower singing in community.
As our communities respond to injustice throughout in the days to come, I believe that it is essential that we make group singing part of our work. Miriam and Moses led the Israelites in song after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15) and the disciples sang the night before Jesus’ death (Matthew 26:30). The participants of the American Civil Rights Movement and the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement sang throughout their struggles for justice. Group singing proves to be community-building, liberative, and ultimately dangerous to present-day Empire and abusive systems of power.
I believe group singing, both within and outside of the context of worship and liturgy, needs to be one of our essential tools in our work for justice that we currently and will continue to face in coming years because:
- Singing together allows the community’s story to be held collectively rather than by a single leader. It helps us name and jointly proclaim our shared values and create shared experiences. Justice work is enabled by community building, joint shaping of values, and shared expression of emotion and creativity. Group singing is one way to make this happen.
- Group singing reinforces a participatory music culture rather than a performance music culture. When we face dominant cultural norms of consumerism, consumption, passive receptivity, and individualism, group singing reinforces countercultural norms of participation and engagement.
- Group singing pushes against Empire and abusive power does not only with the words of a song. Mark Lewis Taylor, in The Executed God, argues that all of the arts have the ability to create the world for which we work and to taste it now (p. 117).
- Singing together is fun!
The lesson my five-year-old self has to teach is that the music we sing together should be accessible so that everyone’s voice finds a welcome. Inspired by a workshop I attended last year by Music that Makes Community, a personal project I decided to take on in recent weeks is to compile a list of songs with lyrics and helpful recordings that can be taught without paper in order to serve in our movements against oppression and abusive systems of power. Given the deep desire for connection with others in the enormity of this work I feel, my instinctive response is to find someone to sing with me. Will you join me?
Taylor, Mark Lewis. The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.