“You Don’t Sing, I Can’t Preach”
Singing together is prayer. Singing together is action. Singing together is justice.
I recently had the opportunity to sing with the Moral Voices Choir of the Poor People’s Campaign Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly, Moral March on Washington and to the Polls in Washington DC.
I want to share two things I learned from this experience, and two things I felt.
Learned: When music as meaning-making is seen not just to matter but to be central to the design and success of any gathering, the overall content, the intended message, and the whole experience is enhanced and elevated. There is no doubt.
The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) provided three meals a day, hotel rooms for 4 nights, and some travel costs for about 70 people who came from across North America to sing in the choir. Most were connected to local PPC communities and many choir members were themselves impacted; poor or low wage workers, struggling with inaccessible health care, injustice, racism, or inequality of some kind.
The gathering had the musical support of a full band and a choir conductor. Reverend Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the PPC,called in multiple times during our rehearsals to share blessings, to remind us how much we mattered, to invite us to lead this movement with him. Before we started the Rally, he blessed us individually, as we were called to minister with him and Reverend Liz Theoharis - to bring healing to the broken hearted, to call the nation to look, to see, and to hear.
The music wasn’t just entertainment, it was ministry in a real and authentic way, and was treated as crucial to the work. Rev. Barber said to us, “You don’t sing, I can’t preach.”
Learned: Relationships create power, “harmony”, and beauty.
Because I am local and my daughter had surgery the day our rehearsals were to begin, I had to miss a few choir rehearsals to attend to her recovery. But it was clear to me as the March approached, that the power of the voices, the depth of what we offered was growing in relation to the number of days and hours the choir spent together.
In each rehearsal, someone would be moved to spontaneously sing a song, to tell a story, to share about the loss of a loved one who had died, who did not have access to health care, or who was struggling to put food on the table. And then we’d sing - but the song had changed. Our parts, the notation was the same - but our hearts were more broken, or more full, or more attuned, more connected to the other hearts - so our voices connected to our bodies and spirits in new ways.
Having meals, taking breaks with the other singers, connecting our own friends and family around the country to those we met who live near our friends made the network stronger, and to sit in fellowship with folks from diverse backgrounds, gender identity expressions, economic resources, faith and cultural expressions - made singing even more rich, because we had opportunity and cause to listen. We had to really hear what these songs and stories meant to one another- no more abstract assumption that “we all experience this the same way”. It was evident the song was unique coming out of each mouth - and together the individual stories blended into a single harmonious - (not perfect, messy, spontaneous, improvisational, heart-full - chorus.
Each person brought their unique musical talent, too. Some folks read the music that was handed out, others did not and learned by ear. We learned our parts, were corrected and showed how endings would work and where tempos changed. And then we stopped thinking. Then we only watched and listened. We had built a solid foundation that gave us confidence to just be in the moment.
We were reminded that we would go where the spirit led us, led the speakers, led Reverend Barber. If he said something a certain way, we might break into something we’d rehearsed - but faster, or much slower, or build from a hum. We listened. We breathed. We were reminded that, while any of us can turn on the radio or open Spotify and hear great professional music, what truly transforms lives is being together in one place and seeing and hearing human beings giving their hearts, lifting their heads, opening their arms, and being a vessel and a conduit for our shared humanity.
It was a good reminder. The notes don’t matter after a while - authentic sharing, being present, and being at-one with the group is what makes holy noise.
Now here’s what I felt.
I have never sung with such a group; I haven’t walked into a room where I didn’t know a soul (well, I knew Yara Allen, but she was busy holding all of us), and where no one knew me nor cared about what I could influence, or who I knew, or how well I sang.
They saw me as a fellow traveler, bringing my love of song and commitment to the work. I could learn, make mistakes, laugh, cry with everyone else. It was some of the most moving singing I’ve ever done.
All songleaders should strive for a mindset that doesn’t just rely on shorthand or familiarity with the collaborators or those gathered to listen, but rather looks for that fresh, raw perspective that enlists bravery and requires courage and generosity.
I don’t yet know how to translate what I experienced into my own work, the work of Sing Unto God, the support I give to communities to deepen commitment to communal singing and prayer. Is it resources? Sure. Is it ample/equal time in any gathering for singing (and not just 5 minutes at the beginning and 3 at the end if we don’t run over?) Sure. But maybe it’s also being present to what matters. Maybe it’s about music making as deep time and relational work. Maybe it’s less frontal singing/leading and more group/choir as anchor/communal singing? I’m not sure yet. But I do know that I’m forever changed by the experience.
I am ever learning from Repairers of the Breach and their co-directors of Theomusicology* and Cultural Arts, Yara Allen and Charon Hribar, and am hopeful to share them and their teaching with others in the near future.
One last note, so to speak: our world is in chaos. Basic rights and protections are being stripped away, despair and fear are prevailing moods, people are hurting. Know that what I’ve talked about here is transferable; for me, it is made manifest in singing with a group that is part of calling people to action, to bringing everyone together with a shared purpose. What communal actions do you participate in? What kinds of groups do you gather with? All can benefit from deep listening, mutual respect, generous giving of each person’s unique talent - and, of course, a little music, too.
*Theomusicology is musicology as a theologically informed discipline. Borrowing thought and method from anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy, it has as its subject the myriad cultural worlds of ethical, religious, and mythological belief. Theomusicological research into cultural/intercultural reflections on the ethical, the religious, and the mythological involves the study of music in the domain or communities of the sacred, the secular, and the profane