One World, Many Voices – Stepping Out

Our reflection for October comes from Michael Jagessar, the URC’s Secretary for Global & Intercultural Ministries.

CWM Legacies Hearing Jamaica (Michael Jagessar)

The people of God across ‘worlds and cultures’ sing their faith. One World Week (October) is a good reminder that we all belong to a larger story than our own and that our songs, music and singing must transcend the boundaries that very often separate us. During the month of October, we can also recall some of the multitude of past and current ‘saints’ and their faith and faithfulness. For instance, there is Elizabeth Fry (prison reformer), Henry Martyn (bible translator), George Bell (ecumenist and peacemaker), Martin Luther (reformer), John Lennon (composer, poet, anti-war activist), Mahalia Jackson (Queen of Gospel, Civil Rights Activist). What hymns would speak to you about these persons? How about Lennon’s ‘imagine’, Jackson’s rendition of ‘nobody knows the trouble’, or Luther’s ‘a mighty fortress’ for starters?

Entrance and inside shot of the Chapel of the University of the West Indies (a former sugar plantation). The stones of the chapel were taken from the Great House of a Sugar Plantation and rebuilt as this chapel. (Michael Jagessar)

I am writing this piece while in Jamaica for a Council for World Mission (CWM) gathering on one of the hearings around ‘legacies of slavery’. Throughout the gathering, music stood as one of threads holding some very intense, uncomfortable and challenging conversations together. Both words and music offered openings for us to rise above moments of impasse. I can still hear Richard Ho Lung’s “I am the way” and ‘Enter into Jerusalem’ and Patrick Prescod’s ‘the right hand of God’ pulsating in my ear and moving my feet. The words, music and spontaneous improvisation around the music/singing created some electrifying moments – transposing us beyond our own small world views. Mind you, I was very troubled about a ‘right-handed’ God which seems to suggest a ‘norming’ and ‘privileging’ of righted-handedness, similar to other examples of what many of our hymns may unconsciously do in misrepresenting the Divine.

And, let me not miss the improvisation that I mention above. Much of Caribbean hymn singing/music tradition (as may be the case in other ‘world’ contexts) is synonymous with improvising on the moment (putting soul/life into the singing). I highlight this, as it is the case in the UK that the singing and accompanying music to these and other Caribbean hymns lack soul/life. It is as if we are afraid to push the music/singing beyond what seems ‘proper’. We end up with almost dirge-like singing. I have lost count of the number of times, I had to stop the music and provide my unorthodox layperson beat/rhythm to accompany the song. And, it is always picked up by musician and singers. So, friends just dare to crank-up the rhythm, step-off the church floor, and be lifted into another world.

Unnamed wood carving at Elmina Hotel Resort (Ghana) (Michael Jagessar)

Music and song play a key role in our life together. The breadth of global music in our interconnected world is to be welcomed and celebrated. It reflects God’s richness and offers fresh vocabulary of and tempo for praise. Singing the hymns of our family elsewhere is an invitation to enter the world of sisters and brothers, to de-center our own inflated view of ourselves, and to participate in a new vision of saints in communion. As the theme for One World Week 2018 suggests: ‘the world is changing – how about us?”