Our theme for March is commitment. I have been thinking about how commitment usually starts as a personal decision, born of our inner drives, but that as we share our lives with others, commitment spills over to the people around us. I think this is especially true about worshiping together at First Parish, in all of its many facets. It is certainly true about singing in choir. The success of the choir is wholly dependent on the commitment of its members, and during the pandemic the commitment of our choir members has certainly deepened. And for me personally, singing, sharing and studying with the choir has renewed and strengthened my own sense of commitment.
I have been leading choir members in a study group looking at African American musicians and composers this year. I have learned so much that has been exciting to share! I am humbled by the commitment Black Americans have to expressing themselves. Their musical gift to the world is unique and we are fortunate to have it around us. A common theme of Black lives is their commitment to their own spirituality and their deep sense of community, and all of that is embedded in their music. Racism has oppressed this community in so many ways, and the spiritual commitment at the root of Black musical expression is both a defense against this racism and a challenge to it, and to all of us.
It is a goal of mine for our church to experience the music of Black Lives Matter this year. You may notice that many of our hymns during worship have been spirituals. Spirituals originated among the enslaved people, and were traditionally only sung by them with each other, and not really shared with white folk. While they can sound joyful, singing them was an expression of pain and sorrow. This music was brought to the wider world by the singing of the Fisk Jubilee singers around 1870, and this expansion of spirituals into the larger white culture was an act of commitment, an assertion of self-worth. The rest is history. We sing these beautiful songs to share the beauty but also the pain. Let’s use our discomfort to move us to social action and the greater good in our world.
You may remember that James Weldon Johnson wrote the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, the Black National Anthem that we have sung during worship services. He also wrote a lovely poem that was shared with me by Beth Tappan deFrees (thank you, Beth!):
The Gift to Sing
Sometimes the mist overhangs my path,
And blackening clouds about me cling.
But, oh, I have a magic way
To turn the gloom to cheerful day—
——I softly sing.
And if the way grows darker still,
Shadowed by Sorrow’s somber wing,
With glad defiance in my throat,
I pierce the darkness with a note,
——And sing, and sing.
I brood not over the broken past,
Nor treat whatever time may bring,
No nights are dark, no days are long.
While in my heart there swells a song.
——And I can sing.