Church Life, Music


This morning at church we sang some old-fashioned favorites, popular hymns from our recent congregational survey. We have been shopping for a new hymnal, always a ripe field for drama in church life.

I’m reminded of a similar time in the life of the Southern Baptist Church in City By the River, Virginia, the home church of my mother and grandmother and my church as a little girl. It was 1975, and Baptist churches had the chance to buy a new hymnal. It looked very modern and contained lots of new music. As is the case in so many churches, the choir loved it, and the congregation, well, let’s just say in general they tolerated it. No one said too much. After all, the hymnals were already in the pews. No one said much about it until the choir began singing a new closing response every Sunday:

“share his love by telling what the Lord has done for you,
share his love by sharing of your faith,
and show the world that Jesus Christ is real to you
ev’ry moment…ev’ry day.”

I’ll never know what bothered the congregation about that response. Maybe they didn’t like having us sing the same thing every week; the members of that church were opposed to becoming too liturgical, and anything that became a habit was considered to be dangerously close to ritualistic (and therefore Catholic, although I never heard anyone put it precisely that way).

Maybe they didn’t like the music itself. It wasn’t exactly rock and roll, but it did have a contemporary flavor.

And maybe they didn’t like the pressure of the message, urging them to share their faith every moment, every day. That was a pretty reserved church, a historical church struggling with what it meant to be the Body of Christ in a downtown setting in an increasingly integrated city. Even something as simple as a new hymnal was a challenge to the accepted way of doing things, a threat to the status quo.

It was around that time that a rumor went around the youth group about one of the younger deacons in the church. Someone heard that someone had said that…he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It got me thinking about what it meant to be a Christian in the South in that decade when Civil Rights were supposed to be something that was settled. But the fallout of integration was still apparent in the schools. Some schools in that city of 100,000 or so were more integrated than others, and although the excuse used was that the educational offerings were inferior, white parents who could sent their children to private school, mine included. The church had its own little “Academy,” another such sheltered environment.

I remember a discussion about whether a “black” family would be welcomed if they came to the church, and I remember wondering why in the world they would want to?

Thirty years later I’m sitting here in City By the Sea, a mostly white city doing its best to educate not only my kids but also lots and lots of immigrant children from Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. I’m so happy to have my kids in this school system, to look at The Princess’ friends and see how multi-hued they are, to attend the 8th grade graduation at #2 Son’s middle school and see the same varied population, to note that I recognized the family names of Ethiopian and Cambodian classmates of #1 Son’s as much as the white ones.

Not too long ago I looked up the school at my growing-up church and found an entry on Private School Review’s website. There is a breakdown of registration by grade–and there is an entry listing the percentage of students of color. It’s 26%, less than the 29% statewide in the Commonwealth of Virginia, but so much more than the 0% of long ago. Twenty-two African-American, two Hispanic, one Asian and one Native American kids are going to school where I used to play Batman on the playground with the minister’s son and all the other little white kids in the kindergarten class.

It makes me hopeful.