Posted by: Titus Presler | January 14, 2010

Haitian singing amid catastrophe highlights power of music

The power of music and singing to sustain people amid catastrophe is highlighted by Music Director Sonya Sutton in today’s “A Daily Cup of Good News from the St. Alban’s Café,” the daily e-note put out in rotation by staff members of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C.:

January 14, 2010

And people gathered in public squares at dusk to sing hymns.

People gathered, so the news reports say, to sing hymns . . .

. . . in Haiti on the evening of a devastating earthquake that likely killed many friends and family members of those who gathered.

I remember a gathering to sing hymns here at St. Alban’s…on September 11, 2001.

Gathering . . . singing . . . when pain and fear are nearly unbearable, people of faith know there is strength and comfort to be found in gathering and singing.

God be with the people of Haiti.

Sonya Sutton
Director of Music

One of the testimonies of many mission visitors to Haiti over the years is that they have been inspired by the singing of Haitian Christians amid the poverty, hunger, violence and disease that have long afflicted that country.  Global North missioners in many other parts of the world reflect similar experiences, as do I, especially from ministry in Zimbabwe and south Asia, but also from Haiti and east Africa.

Music is a mystery.  Its capacity to deepen, enlarge and unify human experience enhances spiritual encounter and the religious life generally.  While Global North visitors and missioners are sometimes chagrined by how Christians in other parts of the world continue to sing and cherish hymns from the western Christian musical tradition, their cherishing is actually similar to how I cherish many songs from the Shona churches, or how musical missioner Randy Giles records and treasures the songs of Tamil Christians in South India.  Getting to know the songs of other Christians helps us share their experience of the triune God, and it enlarges our own.  So we rejoice at how hymns from other parts of the world are now making their way into our own hymnals.

Global North Christians are often shy when Global South Christians ask them to sing something from their own tradition for them – as they often do.  We shouldn’t be.  When we understand that music is a way of sharing experience in Christ, we should not only sing freely, but we should go prepared to sing.  Since many USAmerican Christians don’t memorize songs, groups going to offer disaster relief in Haiti should think about the role of music in their encounter with Haitians.  If necessary, it might be good to prepare booklets for team members – or to enter hymn texts on cell phones and PDAs – both to strengthen their own team worship and to share singing with the people they are serving.  Music is vital in mission – for the visitors and the visited, for the serving and the served, in the going out and in the coming home.

Postscript: Soon after posting this a new hymn suggestion for Haiti appeared on the Bishops and Deputies Listserve, forwarded by Louie Crew of the Diocese of Newark.  I plan to use the hymn in the worship at the Church of St. Simon the Cyrenian in New Rochelle, N.Y., this Sunday, Jan. 17.  The hymn was written by the Rev. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, a Presbyterian pastor in Wilmington, Del., who evidently has several collections of hymn texts, and several texts were included in the Episcopal hymnal supplement “Voices Now”.  She gives permission for the text below to be used in support of relief efforts, especially through Church World Service.

In Haiti, There is Anguish

Tune: St. Christopher (Beneath the Cross of Jesus)

1. In Haiti , there is anguish that seems too much to bear;

A land so used to sorrow now knows even more despair.

From city streets, the cries of grief rise up to hills above;

In all the sorrow, pain and death, where are you, God of love?

2. A woman sifts through rubble, a man has lost his home,

A hungry, orphaned toddler sobs, for she is now alone.

Where are you, Lord, when thousands die, the rich, the poorest poor?

Were you the very first to cry for all that is no more?

3. O God, you love your children; you hear each lifted prayer!

May all who suffer in that land know you are present there.

In moments of compassion shown, in simple acts of grace,

May those in pain find healing balm, and know your love’s embrace.

4. Where are you in the anguish?   Lord, may we hear anew

That anywhere your world cries out, you’re there – and suffering, too.

And may we see, in others’ pain, the cross we’re called to bear;

Send out your church in Jesus’ name to pray, to serve, to share.

Tune:  Frederick Charles Maker, 1881

Text:  Text: Copyright 2010 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.  All rights reserved.  Permission is given for use by those who support Church World Service and Episcopal Relief and Development.

Here is yet another musical note, this one from Sojourners magazine:

God, you are the one who gave me life.
Why are we suffering?
– Lines of a hymn sung among the survivors of Haiti’s earthquake while camped overnight in St. Pierre’s Plaza, Port-au-Prince.


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