Even the Hymns Preach

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Even the Hymns Preach:

Call and Response in African American Catholic Churches

"Oh, you’re just preaching to the choir." That’s an oft-heard critique of sermonizers who only address those who agree with their stances on politics and theology. But the obverse – "Oh my, the choir is preaching to us!" is an everyday miracle in many African American Catholic Churches which strive to keep alive a spirituality born in the struggle of enslavement and of segregated oppression. In the words of unofficial Black National Anthem, "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing":

"Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
"Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us!"

Gifted liturgists and music directors in these churches enhance the pulpit preaching with an array of traditional Catholic hymnody, Spirituals, Traditional Gospel, jazz, Contemporary Gospel, and Praise & Worship songs.

But the pulpit preaching itself is enlivened and informed by quoting the lyrics of Spirituals – those miraculous musical sandwiches of double and triple meanings. Printed versions of these sacred song carry "Traditional" or "Anonymous" on the Author line. In truth these rich treasuries of faith were assembled by a community of authors across time and space – whom Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson calls in his commemoration of the Spirituals’ composers "O black and unknown bards of long ago" and of whom he asks "how came your lips to touch the sacred fire?"

In a Spirituals course I took at the Institute for Black Catholic Studies of Xavier University of Louisiana, Dr. Joseph A. Brown, S.J. demonstrated how these compositions were meditations, mantras, Biblical commentary, and Theological reflection – on top of also being a launching pad for "coded messages" for the underground railroad. These song gave the enslaved singers safety in expressing skepticism about a version of Christianity that approved of slavery: to wit, the sly line in "I Got Shoes" that throws some shade, "Everybody talkin’ about heaven ain’t goin’ there."

"Oh Mary Don’t You Weep" is one of many spirituals that is perplexing, and that’s the intention – "confusion is the beginning of all wisdom." The weeping Mary in question is Mary of Mary and Martha, and she’s weeping over her brother Lazarus’ death. But the song tells her, "Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded," which at first blush makes no sense at all. But after a deep breath and remembering the power of the Exodus story for enslaved Africans, you can see what those unknown bards were signifying: God acted in history to free the Hebrew people, God can act again in history to save Lazarus. That also means, God will act in history once more to emancipate us!

The power of the Exodus event is demonstrated in the rolling, rumbling thunder of "Go Down, Moses" which a baritone voice can coax into a homily; I like to use this as the response to the Exodus reading at the Easter Vigil. "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)" is a Spiritual that always spells Good Friday to me (we used to do an urban stations of the cross singing this in San Antonio). "Were You There" informs my preaching to make a call for all of us to place ourselves "into" the story either as part of the crowd or at the foot of the cross. "Going Home", which inspired Anton Dvorak with a theme for his New World Symphony, is a soothing message for mourners at a wake or funeral.

Contemporary and Traditional Gospel can also underscore the preaching and give a sonic platform for people to take out of the church and into the streets. I have a dear friend who said once to me, "I love that Gospel music at your church; my only critique is that it repeats too much." I said back to him: "that’s the whole point!" That’s what sticks with you when you skip to your car. That’s what you remember as you sit on your porch swing and glide. Several titles come to mind, and I recommend them to you: Richard Smallwood’s "Healing" which will have you convinced that there IS a Balm in Gilead; "Change" song by Tramaine Hawkins ("You’ve changed my life complete….and now I sit at my Savior’s feet") (God "even changed change!) which is based on Psalm 51;

"Be Grateful" by Walter Hawkins Singers is a good centering place for stewardship commitment.

Lyrics from all the traditions are useful in eliciting Call and Response. The verbal ping-ponging between preacher and congregation can energize the assembly and help the weary homilist to give life, hope and joy. It’s / me / It’s / me / It’s / me / O God/ Standing in the need of / Prayer.

– Bruce Barnabas Schultz, O.P.,

Associate Pastor, Our Lady of Lourdes, Atlanta, GA

Preaching Essay Archive

Just click on an Essay title below to read it.
(The latest submissions are listed first.)

• Preaching Mark 2023 •
• Preaching Mark 2022 •
• Even the Hymns Preach •
• Advent 2018 •
• Preaching Luke •
• The Journey Through Lent •
• A New Year - A Time To Choose •
• Called To Continue Our Journey As Peacemakers •
• Easter: A Call To Renew Our Faith •
• Fan Into Flame •
• Grieving Our Losses •
• The Importance of Inter-Religious Sharing •
• Are We Living In Pentecost Times? •
• Living With Gratitude and Hope •
• “Lumen Fidei” – the Call and the Challenge •
• What is the "New Evangelization"? •
• Pentecost •
• Inculturated Liturgy Challenges Preaching to Flower •
• Preaching Lent - Year C •
• Reflection - Psalm 127 •
• Reaching Youth Today •
• The Need To Reclaim And Live With Moral Courage •
• The Sacred Triduum •
• Welcoming the Stranger •
• Working for Peace •

Blessings on your preaching.

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