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Monday, August 8, 2005

Thoughts from sea level.

So it turns out I didn't have much chance to write from Denver. Being one of the few remaining "laptopless" people around, I wasn't willing to pay by the minute to check email or write a blog entry. I'm sure you missed me terribly...

The UUMN conference was a blast. Exhausting, to be sure, but chock full of great stuff. Workshops with John Beuhrens, Allaudin Mathieu and others were certainly a highlight. The Interfaith Music Festival was truly a powerful, deeply moving experience - one which I hope to duplicate here in Nashville next spring. And just being with colleagues from around the country who are giving their hearts and souls to the work of transforming our congregations through music and the arts is always a tremendously inspiring experience. If I get a chance later this week I'll try to write about all of those things in more detail.

What I really want to write about today is an unexpected, unplanned, unprogrammed experience of real interfaith exchange that totally blew me away. It turns out that our 250 or so UUMN'ers weren't the only church folks having a conference in Denver last week. We shared the city with 30,000 from the Assemblies of God, one of the Pentecostal traditions. Their conference included a youth arts component, and night after night there were kids lounging around the hotel lobby playing the baby grand or strumming their guitars and singing together.

It was kind of annoying. Annoying in the "how many times are you going to play that same song over and over again?" sort of way. And annoying in the "I'm happy to support youth in the arts, but this isn't very good and I'm getting sick of hearing it for hours at a time" sort of way, too.

But a few nights into our conference, somewhere around 11pm, a new sound came roaring from the vicinity of the lobby piano. Clearly someone who knew their way around a Gospel piano had taken over, and he was joined by a group of singers who were letting it fly. This was worth checking out. So a group of us from UUMN put down our drinks (we were hanging out in the hotel bar, of course) and gathered around to listen. Pastor Michael, an imposing African-American man with a voice that could take over the whole room whenever he wanted to do it, was at the piano, and he had two singers behind him (a soprano and a tenor - Pastor Michael sang alto). As they wound their way through a medley of songs I had never heard, I noticed that all of the kids in the lobby were singing along, and that no one - including Pastor Michael - had a songbook in front of them.

I listened for over an hour, attemtping to join in every once in a while, especially when Pastor Michael said, "Come on, y'all - sing with us." He just didn't seem like the kind of person you would say no to. All around us people were raising their hands in prayer. Some were crying, some were praying, some were quite fervently speaking in tongues. At one point Pastor Michael said, "He's here. I can feel him in this place." I must say that I found myself in total agreement. Well, except for the "he" part...

My roomate and I left after about an hour. In that hour the music never stopped - when one song would come to and end Pastor Michael would noodle his way around the piano until the next song came to him. It really was an impressive, powerful experience. And as we left, I was thinking about what we would sing if we had been invited to join in and offer one of our songs. Two nights later, we got our chance.

I'm not quite sure how it started. One of the traditions among a group of my UUMN friends is to find a piano and sing jazz standards during conference latenights. It helps to have one of the finest jazz players I know among our group - Mark Freundt, who was the accompanist at GA this year. So anyway, I was sitting in the bar (again) when I heard "Love Will Guide Us" come blasting out of the lobby. I put down my drink and ran. Mark was at the piano, and some familiar faces were there singing along. But there were others, too, including the soprano from Pastor Michael's group. And it turns out they had asked us to sing some of our songs for them.

What to sing? That was the question racing through all of our minds. What could we sing that would involve the whole group and give them a sense of who we are and what we're about. And that we could do without songbooks. Well, after "Love Will Guide Us," we did a bunch of songs from Singing the Journey. "Comfort Me," "When the Spirit Says Do," "Come and Go With Me," and "Siyahamba" - we taught them to sing it in Zulu and Spanish! In between they sang a few songs for us, before we tried to find one last song that we all knew that we could sing together. We settled on "Kumbayah." Wow. UU's and Pentecostals holding hands, swaying together singing Kumbayah.

We talked with some of the kids there, and they asked if this is the kind of music we always sing in church. I said yes, but that we also sing more traditional stuff, too. And that every congregation is a little different - that the Spirit moves us to sing in different ways. They nodded and agreed, and then asked us how to get "Siyahamba" for their churches!

I will admit that I came into the week with some apprehension about the AG folks being around. I had visions of some pretty heated exchanges between us, perhaps even some unwelcome witnessing in the middle of one of our sessions. I'm paranoid like that, but I come by it honestly, having seen some pretty ugly confrontations here in the south.

But I was wrong. In that particular moment, with those particular people present and willing to explore with each other, the paths of our journeys met and joined for an hour or so. And we didn't meet to argue over points of doctrine or biblical interpretation. We met to "sing to the power of the faith within." It was music that brought us together, if only for a brief moment. And I believe that the Spirit was there with us, with all of us, singing along.

Copyright © 2005 by Jason Shelton | Posted 8 August 2005 at 12:16 PM

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August 8, 2005 03:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

"It was kind of annoying. Annoying in the "how many times are you going to play that same song over and over again?" sort of way."

LOL! I earned my Theology B.A., at an Assemblies of God Undergraduate College (Valley Forge Christian College). It was a very rigorous program and highly academic (if your G.P.A. dropped under 3.0 you were dropped from the program/major). A few of the best Profs. secretly abandoned the Rapture, Baptism in the Spirit w/ evidence of Tongues, Vineyard Music, and the normal hate of Harry Potter books. They would only admit it to a very select few, and behind very closed doors, lest the be fired on the spot. these Profs. made my time there wonderful.

John Ashcroft, right after he lost his senate seat to a corpse, and prior to his becoming Attorney Gen., spoke at chapel there (his father was a former President of the College and the brand new research center is named after him). The sermon he delivered would frighten most church/state people, had they actually heard it before he became Attorney General.

At any rate, I watched, for five years, thousands of folks repeatedly sing this little ditty:

I will never be the same again
I can never return, I've closed the door
I will walk the path, I'll run the race
And I will never be the same again

I often asked myself, from the very back row of the chapel, how many times does a person need to change, and how many times are they really going to close the same door?!?

Perhaps it because of my own personal experience of this music for 6+ years, but I personally can't take it. I consider Pentecostal worship mere emotionalism, and often spiritual manipulation, but again that is my personal experience talking.

I'm glad to hear that you and a few Pentecostals were conjoined in worship for a moment or two. I, however, have serious reservations about the chances of such a union realizing authentic longevity.

I wasn't permitted to attend a UU congregation while I was an undergrad student. I converted to Unitarianism during my sophomore year of my Theology program, and would have been expelled had they found a way to do it (during my last semester in the spring of 2004 I was in the President's office three times, for 4 hours or more each time). If I came completely out of my theological closet, I would have been kicked out, and all my work would have been for nothing. So, my wife and I had to settle for a few secret trips to Pottstown UU, and the Church of the Larger Fellowship, which was risky because your computer was monitored by the admin building day and night.

Dudley Jones:

August 8, 2005 07:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

Dear Philocrites

Glad you had a good time with the Pentecostals. Some of the sweetest people I have ever met come from there. Bless them all.


August 8, 2005 09:39 PM | Permalink for this comment

It wasn't Philocrites, it was Jason ...


August 8, 2005 11:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

It's OK. Apparently we red-headed UU M.Div's get mistaken for one another all the time.

Shawn - I'm sad to hear of your experiences. I have no delusions that the experience I had in Denver might somehow open the door for a meaningful relationship between our traditions. Then again, our new minister told me tonight that she had a call from a local AG minister who wanted to work together to do something to counter the "Focus on the Family" types in the religious right. Not sure what will come of it, but I'm quite intrigued by the possibilities!

Joseph Santos-Lyons:

August 17, 2005 02:18 AM | Permalink for this comment

There were 250 persons at the UU Musician's Network Conference?


August 17, 2005 09:29 AM | Permalink for this comment

Yep. It was a record.

Liz Schwartz:

August 28, 2005 04:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

I was sitting in the bar (again) when I heard "Love Will Guide Us" come blasting out of the lobby. I put down my drink and ran.

lol. thanks for sharing this lovely story! i never heard of this conference before (tho i'm totally not surprised that it exists). I'll have to spread the word to people I know who love to sing in worship. Maybe even read your story to our campus group.

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