In 1981, when I began serving as Pastor to the Gordon Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, there was a monthly meeting and annual event of ‘Note Singers’. Every month the local group would gather at 3:00 pm on Sunday afternoon to sing notes. What a time! Then in July, Gordon Road hosted a ‘Note Singers Convention’ and other groups of Note Singers came for an annual event. They gave me a set of hymn books of notes, but, needless to say— ‘Note Singing’ is a dying art. I so long to film this culture before it’s extinction. I did, however, discover that I could sing verse for verse many of the old hymns, many of which I had not heard sung in my adult life. As the words came forth it caused me to wonder where they were coming from.
By the time I got to Salem in 1985, I would sometimes look up and see that persons were watching me sing hymns as they began to notice that I very rarely opened the hymnal for singing. It was not until my mother’s passing in 2002 when I became heir to my family’s pictorial collection that I discovered a wonderful picture dated in the 1940’s. It is an 8×10 of the pulpit view of my birth church, the Cedar Avenue Church of God in Cleveland, Ohio. Pictured in the Choir are my grandmother, Ruth Magby Smith and my great-grandmother, Rosa Marshall Magby Cross. It has now dawned on me that I was born in the choir.
The hymns of faith have been a very important part of the Black Church’s tradition and Black American culture at large. Both Howard Thurman and James Cone have put into theological perspective this phenomenon of song as a vital part of our faith history as a people. In ‘Deep River’ (1945) and ‘The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death’ (1947) Howard Thurman makes this statement: “My own life has been so deeply influenced by the genius of the spirituals that the meaning as distilled into my experience in my early years spills over in much that I have come to think in my maturity.” In ‘The Spirituals and The Blues’ (1972) James Cone writes: “Existentially, the subject matter and focus of this book have been defined by the black musical forms which have influenced my life. I have written about the spirituals and the blues because I have lived the experience which created them… I affirmed the reality of the spirituals and blues as authentic expressions of my humanity, responding to the rhythms of dance. I, therefore, write about the spirituals and blues, because I am the blues and my life is a spiritual. Without them, I cannot be.”
Mother’s Day! Still grieving over the earthly loss of Mama. Pondering the words of this hymn— “Faith of our mothers! Living still. In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword. O How our hearts beat high with joy. Whene’er we hear that glorious word! Faith of our mothers, holy faith! We will be true to thee til death.”
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