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