Author – Adam Perez is currently a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC.
Launch Event Recap
We began our time together in just the way you might expect for the launch of the Center for Congregation Song: by singing! In fact, singing was the ligature that bound us (and our lovely schedule) together at Harmony!
In the elegant setting of The Room on Main in downtown Dallas, we began in worship with Ana Hernandez. She lead us into contemplation through song—not for turning inward, but for turning and tuning our ears to the beautifully diverse voices around us. Accompanied by simple shruti box or guitar, the breath carried our song together. It was a beautiful microcosm and model for the rest of the weekend.
After opening worship, attendees shared round table discussions where many were able to connect and converse with various affinity groups before heading down to our “Gospel Sing in the Park.”
Down at Main Street Garden park, Joslyn Henderson lead our worship with songs from across the spectrum of Black gospel music. In the late afternoon light, as dogs barked and city buses bumbled past, it was a deep joy to see so many pause to share in our song. In the late evening, attendees gathered for a relaxed time of socializing and sharing (and in my case, stumble upon some help for a research project—thanks Ben Brody!).
Monday morning we turned our hearts and our hands outward. John Bell lead us in songs and stories about the very real issues of food and justice worldwide. Simultaneously, Kids Against Hunger partnered with us to prepared dry meals for hungry persons around Texas and around the world.
Swee Hong Lim and Cynthia Wilson shared the Plenary Address. Their talks constituted a broader conversation about the relationship between congregational song and culture. On one hand, Swee Hong Lim asked how we, as congregational song practitioners, can prevent “ethno-tourism” and work against a kind of new colonialism enacted through music. Lim also used some examples of fusion musics to highlight the way we often project our own normative values onto what music from ‘other’ cultures should sound like. Likewise, Cynthia Wilson turned her attention to the margins, examining how congregational song can be appropriately contextualized with both the input of the ‘other’ and their full incorporation so as to be agents of transformation. For Wilson, this is especially important as music in the Africana context is part of a rich incarnational theology.
Just before lunch, CCS Director Brian Hehn introduced the mission and programs of the CCS. The guiding postures that pervaded his presentation included ‘conversations’ and resourcing. The afternoon practitioner talks also highlighted the practice of conversing or sharing over topics that can sometimes be either difficult, such as across lines of race and culture, or even taboo, like the struggles in one’s faith or spirituality.
After lunch, the community was graced by shorter talks from four excellent practitioners, Father Ray East, Amanda Powell, Jan Kraybill, and Tony Alonso. Each encouraged the group to push past norms and common boundaries: from using the Organ as an anti-bullying tool to bringing rap music and poetry more fully into realm of urban Christian ministry. We concluded the time with a panel discussion that included all the presenters. Questions related to music, songwriting, and pastoral concerns extended the groups conversation. The event closed with another contemplative time of singing and listening under Ana Hernandez’s leadership.
The world was a better place this morning thanks to your efforts. Every segment of the launch was highly professional, inclusive, and engaging. At no time was I tempted to sneak out for a nap or a bit of shopping! My choir got a taste of paperless singing today and they were so excited! One girl exclaimed, “Wow! this is so creative!” – Nancy Graham, Memphis, TN
Continuing the Conversation: Dissonance?
Over the course of the weekend at the launch event, “Harmony,” I found myself stuck on a phrase that was used by a few of the presenters as they reflected on their hopes for the future of congregational song. It’s a great one, really—eminently tweet-able. One that seems to bring together so much of religious life and experience. It goes something like this, ‘We need to be writing congregational songs that people will be singing on their deathbeds.’ The sentiment is well taken: we need to write songs (or ‘hymns’ if you prefer) that persons and communities can carry with them through their whole lives, ‘even unto death.’
The challenge is daunting. Many have asked the question over the years, ‘what is it that makes a text or text-tune pairing so long-lasting?’ It’s not like there is a formula for generating that je ne sais quoi—the one we find in songs like “Amazing Grace,” or “It is Well/When Peace, Like a River.” Of course, those two examples do share a certain comforting quality that makes them especially fitting for the harder times of life and it goes without saying that songs of comfort are especially fitting for those deathbed moments. But to take the commendation seriously, is the ‘deathbed’ the norm by which we should measure congregational song?
The other end of the spectrum seems to have been expressed by John Bell as he introduced the “Serve and Sing” session. Bell remarked upon the fact that we North Americans have very few songs that address the occasion for which we were gathered that morning: to address the problem of lack of food, rather than its bounty. Why is this the case?
In my ears, Bell’s reflection and lament about the state of song stood in stark contrast to the other laments about the (perceived lack of) longevity of song. While others seemed to be asking for songs that would transcend time and space, Bell seemed to be asking for songs immanently and intimately tied to lived experiences and issues of justice. Should this be the norm by which we measure congregational song? Can the transcendent and immanent co-exist? Can we ‘have our cake and eat it too?’
Okay, I know I’ve probably taken the sentiment farther than they intended, but I think it sheds a discerning light on our imagination of the ‘future’ of congregational song that we reflected on so richly at Harmony. It comes together, I think, around regular theme from the event: the power of story. One important reason those above-mentioned songs are so comforting at the bedside of the ill or distressed is that those same songs have been with us in those places before. Those songs not only have their own stories of comfort in the face of fear and distress, but we have woven our stories into them too. In some sense, the songs about hunger and justice are also part of stories and narratives in which we are involved. We must weave our diverse experiences of want for justice and plenty in the kingdom of God with those for whom food itself engenders this sentiment. The song can then become part of the script in our inclusive drama of life, death, deep hope, and justice in the kingdom of God.