Songs of Faith

“Sunday mornings were all about fixing hair, and fixing waffles, and getting everybody situated and ready to go to church, and singing. My grandmother and my mother both sang in the choir, so while I’m preparing to take them their separate ways, there are always Gospel songs that are being sung; songs of faith.

My mother was the breadwinner, my grandmother was the homemaker; and when it was hard for my mother, she would sing. It’s that kind of song that I could just imagine Harriet Tubman singing:

‘Oh I,

Couldn’t hear nobody pray

Couldn’t hear nobody pray 

Lord way down yonder by myself

And I couldn’t hear nobody pray.’

When it became fulfilled, she’d sing things like:

 

‘Said I wadn’t gon’ tell nobody 

but I couldn’t keep it to myself

No I couldn’t keep it to myself

No I couldn’t keep it to myself

I said I wadn’t gon’ tell nobody 

but I couldn’t keep it to myself

What the Lord has done for me.’

And then she just squeezes herself like this and says, ‘Thank you Lord!’

Oh yeah, that’s what I was raised with! So there was no chance not to be connected with this flow of spirit moving through me.

 

Daniel’s Reflection

I love me some Renée Morgan Brooks. A sweeter soul I have not met. I met Renée when she was the minister of music at the Unity Church of Louisville, Kentucky. I heard her chanting and praying over lit candles at a ceremony commemorating the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima. I was taken by her voice and her presence and her gestures as she invoked Spirit to heal us and that great atrocity.  

When I did get to interview her, I was deeply moved by her story of being an African American girl growing up in a household with just a mother and a grandmother; her father died when she was young. Renée grew up in San Francisco in a very international and cosmopolitan environment but was deeply impacted by the civil rights movement as it played out in the South. And, most importantly, Renée grew up steeped in song, especially Gospel music. When there was trouble, her mother would sing. And when the trouble got resolved, her mother would sing. And Sunday mornings were filled with “fixin’ hair and fixin’ waffles” and singing songs of praise.  

Renée’s interview gives me an opportunity to reflect on my deep connection and affinity for the African American community. Growing up Jewish in Atlanta, I was deeply impacted by African American Christianity. As a 7- and 8-year-old, I joined my family at Camp Blue Star in Hendersonville, North Carolina for Camping Unlimited, a unique bringing together of African American and white, Jewish and Christian kids from across the South. We made peace signs out of pottery and heard early versions of rap music. We did not integrate into each others’ lives, but we had a moment in time together that imprinted on me deeply.

I have come to appreciate that both African Americans and Jews share a connection to “deliverance theology.” That is, the story of Moses leading the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. There is a wonderful saying from the Passover Seder meal: , ‘In every generation, it is required that each of us see ourselves as if we personally came forth from Egypt.’ And this is made even more potent by the fact that the Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim, “a narrow place.” So what both Jews and African Americans have in common is a belief that we have come from a narrow, difficult place, and that we are and will be further delivered to freedom. This has obviously happened for Jews much more than African Americans but it is my great hope that we can work for the end of racism that limits the lives of African Americans.

What I never understood about Gospel music growing up is that it is uniquely about the “Good News.” So while many people love Gospel music as an art form, and the energy of the Black Church, there is no Gospel music without the “Good News.” I say this not to create separation but to honor the faith and the message of hope that is the source of Gospel music.  

I am also deeply aware the struggle that resulted in Gospel music was created by white privilege and racism. I think it’s perverse that many white people love Gospel music but do nothing to dismantle racism and white privilege, so I am trying to not be one of them. 

Renée Morgan Brooks has brought the spirit and holiness of Gospel music to her progressive Christian beliefs and practices. Today she lives in Phoenix, Arizona having completed her ministerial ordination in the years since i interviewed her in Louisville. The Blue Fire Abbey’s website describes Renée as: “…a voice for empowerment and self-realization! Renée will tell you that she feels blessed and grateful to have a voice and a Presence that touches the heart of so many across so many lines.” 

I can’t think of a better way to be known in the world. Thank you, Renée, for the precious gift of your voice and presence in the world.