Lift Every Voice for Charleston

I have a friend who believes the correct response to whatever befalls a community of faith is: “What, then, shall we sing?”

This morning in church, many of us throughout the United States joined in solidarity with the congregation at Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC by singing the great hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (#599 in The Hymnal 1982 if you’re Episcopalian like me; the text is by James Weldon Johnson and can be read at poets.org).

I love that hymn. Being a Detroiter, I know it by heart. But it was particularly difficult to sing today:

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

I don’t know about heaven, but earth does not yet know the tune, much less the harmonies. We have work to do. So the triumphant-sounding words in the hymn, which sprang so easily from the tongue in 2009 when our nation elected its first Black president, felt a little flat today.

We were gathered as community to celebrate: that’s the term we use when speaking of the Eucharist. It’s a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, and we celebrate it. Our story, as people of the Christian faith, looks death squarely in the eyes and takes it on, in the “sure and certain hope of resurrection.” On any given Sunday, that resurrection faith is easy to sing. But this week, we were made keenly aware that we are still, in the words of the hymn, “treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.” It was difficult to sing.

Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

“No,” I wanted to reply. The hymn refers, in past tense, to “the day when hope, unborn, had died.” Yet it feels like we’re living in such a time.

Reflecting on the contradictions we were singing, I recalled the words of Harvey Milk: “You gotta give ’em hope.” Biblical scholars often encourage us to interrogate the text of Scripture by asking, “Where’s the good news?” It’s a question we should also ask while looking out at the world trying to find what the Spirit is doing, and another way to word it is, “Where’s the hope?” Today’s hymn, I think, is actually quite useful in training our vision to see hope where it seems to be absent.

There’s no denying that, even though we keep retreading the same stony road, we are “already and not yet” in a place for which our ancestors hoped. Ground really has been gained, no matter how much journeying still needs to be done. Today’s triumphant-sounding hymn carries that sense of the “already-and-not-yet” by proclaiming a bright future even while acknowledging a “gloomy past.” That in-between stretch of road that spans from hopeless past to future promise continues to be watered with tears but also continues to point us toward the consummation of our hope.

Wisely, the hymn does not end on either a mournful or a celebratory note, but with a prayer, reminding us that our hope lies in praying these words and striving to live them out, together:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Perhaps the rhetorical-sounding questions earlier in the hymn are intended to evoke a mixed response. Have we arrived in the place “for which our parents* sighed”? That language is reminiscent of the biblical descriptions of patriarchs and matriarchs in the faith hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We read, for example, in Hebrews 11 [NRSV]:

…By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

…All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Our “native land,” to which we pray in today’s hymn to stand true, is that city “whose architect and builder is God.” We’re not quite there yet, but we catch glimpses, especially when we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist. May we remain true to that native land, and bring along with us whoever we meet along the stony road.

*The Hymnal 1982 changes the word “fathers” in the original poem to the gender-inclusive “parents.” You know our mothers were sighing, too! Maybe more, even.

The Spirit of Detroit and Christian Hope

Photo by the author

Statue informally known as the “Spirit of Detroit,” by Marshall Fredericks. The sculpture sits outside the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center at Woodward and Jefferson Aves. Photo by the author.

The Detroit city motto has become better known in recent years, thanks to the proliferation of books—about the city’s history, and, yes, about the ruins, by authors who live in the Metro Area and love the city—and of merchandise such as bookbags, t-shirts, postcards, and other items you might find at City Bird, the Detroit Merchantile Company, Pure Detroit, various Eastern Market vendors, pop-ups, or other local boutiques. Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus—We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes. These words were penned by Father Gabriel Richard, a Catholic priest and a major figure in Detroit and Michigan history, after fire destroyed the city in 1805.

What does it mean to “hope for better things”? Is it the same kind of hope as when children hope for a snow day, or when you hope your favorite team will win the game?

I think the fact that it was written by a priest in the context of city-wide disaster suggests that Fr. Richard was thinking more along the lines of Christian hope, which I would define as the confidence we have in virtue of our trust in God, whom we know to be trustworthy. That’s a very different kind of hope.

Which is well and good and quite encouraging, really, for Christians, and perhaps for other religious theists. But in today’s pluralistic context, even in a predominately Christian city like Detroit, I think it’s important to find where a similar kind of hope is accessible to all.

Confidence from trusting in that which is trustworthy—where can we find that today? Not in City Hall, not in Kevyn Orr or Gov. Rick Snyder, not in Dan Gilbert or the Ilich family; not in the economy, certainly not in the strength of the U.S. Dollar. Not even in the ideal of democracy, which is so clearly broken. I would suggest we find that secular version of confident hope in the people of Detroit: in its people of good will, whose civic identity and spirit, I think, is characterized by strength, loyalty, pride, and resilience. “Detroit hustles harder,” as they say.

The religious meaning of hope is, I think, primary; but it’s important even for those of us who consciously place our trust in God to also discriminate among those objectives vying for our hope in the world around us. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we place our trust in God, and also place it in an earthly savior, such as a corporate benefactor or a politician. We’re fooling ourselves if we think we “seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness” but also chase after economic security before all else. But for people of faith, hoping in God is always done in community, as community. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are people of covenant. We believe God calls peoples into covenant with Godself, and so we simply cannot fully trust in God without each other. To trust in the human spirit—in this case, the spirit of Detroit—requires civic engagement, concern for one’s neighbor, and holding virtues like charity, commitment, and forgiveness above the shiny distraction of money. It requires creativity, sharing, peacemaking, and hard work—but not just the individualistic hard work of earning one’s own living. It is entirely congruent, I think, with trust in God, because God’s dwelling is among the people. (If you don’t believe me, go read James Cone or Jim Perkinson, or any of the Liberation Theologians.) If we are to trust in one another, though, we must work, as a people, to be trustworthy—to be worthy of this confident hope. Thankfully, we bear this task together.What kind of city do we want to build? What Detroit do we want to be?

Official city seal. Photo by the author.

Official city seal, also at city hall (visible on the upper left in the image above). Photo by the author.

The LORD brings the will of the nations to naught;
he thwarts the designs of the peoples.

But the LORD’S will stands fast for ever,
and the designs of his heart from age to age.

Happy is the nation whose God is the LORD!
happy the people he has chosen to be his own!

The LORD looks down from heaven,
and beholds all the people in the world.

From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze
on all who dwell on the earth.

He fashions all the hearts of them
and understands all their works.

There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army;
a strong man is not delivered by his great strength.

The horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
for all its strength it cannot save.

Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon those who fear him,
on those who wait upon his love,

To pluck their lives from death,
and to feed them in time of famine.

Our soul waits for the LORD;
he is our help and our shield.

Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,
for in his holy Name we put our trust.

Let your loving-kindness, O LORD, be upon us,
as we have put our trust in you.

(Psalm 33:10-22, BCP)