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Tradition puts spotlight on gift of music

Tradition puts spotlight on gift of music Insights into Religion Lilly Foundation

Appreciation for music’s vital role in ministry is the impetus behind Choir Anniversary, a tradition in many black churches. The African American Lectionary provides resources for congregations planning the celebration.

Music, at its best, can transform a worship experience.

Sometimes it comforts; other times it energizes. Either way, music nudges, speaking to us as perhaps no other part of a service can.

Appreciation for music’s vital role in ministry is the impetus behind Choir Anniversary, a tradition in many African-American churches and one that the Rev. Alfie Wines particularly loves. Though the celebrations vary from one congregation to the next – sometimes marking a specific anniversary for the choir or church, sometimes not – the custom is typically a highlight of the year and may go on for days. Choirs spend weeks or months preparing.

Wines, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas, provided a guest commentary on Choir Anniversary for the African American Lectionary, a collaborative project launched in 2007 by Hope for Life International (owners of the journal The African American Pulpit) and Vanderbilt Divinity School.

The lectionary provides worship and cultural resources tailored for black churches, says Dr. Stacey Floyd-Thomas, associate professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt. It’s a way, she says, for theologically trained ministers and religious leaders to give back to the black church community.

In the commentary she wrote for Choir Anniversary, Wines credited music with influencing her path in life.

“I know that one of the main reasons that I am a minister of the Gospel today is because of the music that was planted deep in my spirit many years ago,” she says.

What gives religious music such sway? For one thing, it stays with us long after the service.

“It’s the words and the imagery,” Wines says. “It’s the melodies that stay with us, that we find ourselves singing around the house or driving in the car. ‘I heard that Sunday, and it’s still with me.’ All of that goes into making music so, so very powerful.”

Voices lifted in song are also voices united. That’s another key to music’s power, says Wines.

“In church life a lot of times you can get people to sing quicker than you can get them to do anything else,” she says.

And that sense of unity extends beyond the here and now. Music has a way of connecting us with our ancestors – their struggles and their joys. That may be especially so for black churches.

“You can actually trace our history as a people by tracing the styles of music that we use in worship,” Wines says. From spirituals to traditional gospel jazz to contemporary gospel rap, each genre captures some essence of its time.To explore more about music’s importance to the black church, check out these episodes of the public television series Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly:

“Black Church Music” (April 13, 2007)

“African-American Spirituals” (Aug. 16, 2005)

“Gospel Music” (Feb. 23, 2001)

The public radio show, on Being with Krista Tippett explores the legacy of African-American spirituals and features an interview with the late performer/educator Joe Carter. Listen to a playlist of spirituals featured on the show.

Carter told  Tippett that spirituals came to be known as “sorrow songs” because they expressed the great suffering experienced by slaves. But at the same time, he said, “there was always some level of hope, as opposed to the concept of the blues. The blues was just singing about your troubles, and there was no hope.” In spirituals, on the other hand, “there’s always the glory hallelujah someplace.”

That’s a bit like how Wines describes church music in general: “Sometimes,” she says, “we use the phrase ‘worship that is off the chain.’”

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