Sing of Justice, Sing of Peace!

As the 2010-11 academic year begins at ABSW, I am overjoyed to be teaching a new class, “Leading Music for Worship.” With the weekly Monday night ABSW chapel as the “lab” for our coursework, my ten students and I plan the congregational singing for each worship service on campus. Given the diversity of our seminary, we strive to reflect that same diversity in the music we choose.

Our chapel is open to all who come (6:00 pm, each Monday when classes are in session) and it is a special gathering each week of students, faculty, staff, and community. Chapel Director and Assistant Professor of Worship, Jennifer Davidson, plans marvelous occasions that proclaim the Word and celebrate God’s presence in our midst.

With summer just behind us, I’d like to share here about the highlight of my season, when over three hundred hymn lovers, writers, composers, educators, and scholars gathered for five days at Samford University, in Birmingham, Alabama. The annual conference of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada offered participants “opportunities to reflect on way that peacemaking and justice are interrelated.” Five hymn festivals, three major addresses, and over forty workshops gave voice to the longing for justice and freedom that has been – and continues to be – expressed through song, both in our land and across the globe.

Being in this historic environment, a central place in the struggle for US civil rights, the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., came alive once again: “We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.” (Letter from a Birmingham jail, 1963). Our Tuesday hymn festival at the conference week was held in Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, a leading congregation during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. There, Dr. James Abbington led us in an evening of “Unsung Hymns by Black and Unknown Bards,” stirring music that spanned over 150 years. Other hymn festivals during the week included “Free at Last: Spiritual Songs of Liberation,” “Crazy in Alabama: Longing for Justice in Story and Song,” (led by folksinger Kate Campbell), and an evening of Sacred Harp singing.

Our 2010 Hymn Society conference also featured exceptional plenaries. The Bay Area’s own Rev. Daniel C. Damon (pastor, hymn writer, composer) delivered an outstanding address, “A Cry for Justice in Hymnody.” Dan and his wife, Eileen Johnson, surveyed twenty current North American hymnals, representing a variety of Christian faith traditions. They “read the topical indexes in each of these books, and selected topics which related to justice for children, creation, the elderly, the poor and oppressed (human rights), persons of other faith traditions (interfaith), the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) community, persons with disabilities, and women.” The individual hymn texts listed under each topic were cataloged in a database.

With this research as the backdrop, Dan challenged the conference attendees by raising this central question: “How are we currently singing about justice in our churches?” [Note: I am now at work on editing the Autumn 2010 issue of THE HYMN, the quarterly journal of The Hymn Society. Dan Damon’s address will be the lead article in this upcoming issue.]

There are so many wonderful experiences from the annual conference I could share. But let me just mention how The Hymn Society nurtures young scholars. At every annual conference there are at least six and sometimes as many as ten Lovelace Scholars present. Through a program started by and named for Austin C. Lovelace, an outstanding American church musician and composer, scholars apply for grants to attend the annual summer conference. It is a delight to have these college and graduate-school age attendees in our midst. They are already doing significant work in their studies of sacred music and hymnody, at schools throughout the continent.

In the last two years, The Hymn Society also began a program called the Emerging Scholars Forum. Each spring students are invited to submit papers to the Hymn Society’s research director on topics related to hymnody and congregational music. A three-person committee (including myself) reads each paper and chooses the three top submissions. Those writers are then invited to attend the summer conference and to present a summary of their scholarship in a workshop setting. The winning paper is considered for publication in THE HYMN. I am happy to report that this summer’s Emerging Scholars — three young women — each had exceptional papers to offer.

I’d like to point you to an exciting website by one of this year’s Emerging Scholars, Hilary Donaldson. At http://transformingeveryguest.blogspot.com/, Hilary offers “thoughts on worship, congregational song, and the life of the church from an unapologetic twenty-something Canadian Presbyterian.”

When I witness the eagerness of my own ABSW students for the task of music planning and leading, and when I have the privilege of meeting and knowing young hymn scholars from across the continent, my heart is gladdened for the future of sacred music and hymnody. Being an ABSW professor, as well as being deeply involved with The Hymn Society (www.thehymnsociety.org), gives me wonderful opportunities to live out the call that urges all of us to “sing of justice, sing of peace!”

-Dr. Nancy Hall

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