General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Music Matters

Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons
Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons

General Assembly 2008 Event 2047

Presented by members of the Task Force on Cultural Misappropriation: Rev. Manish K. Mishra, Rev. Jason Shelton, Beth Norton, Rev. David Takahashi Morris, Rev. Danielle Di Bona, Gini Courter, and Janice Marie Johnson.

The session began with a meditative musical selection:

When I breathe in, I breathe in peace,
When I breathe out, I breathe out love.

Rev. Jason Shelton posed the pastoral question: "Which songs are appropriate for UU [Unitarian Universalist] worship?" Music has deep personal connections for each of us, but what do we do with the lived experience of a song? This workshop invited conversation to hear those stories.

Panelists reflected on two questions: first, was there a time when music fed you deeply? and second, was there a time when a personal experience of music bothered you?

Rev. Manish K. Mishra, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg, Florida, shared stories of a positive and a negative experience with music. He was brought to tears of joy last night at the General Assembly opening ceremony. The Seven Sources cantata, which reflects so many different heritages and traditions, evoked in him an emotional response. For example, he said, "the gospel tradition is not ours, but the way we did it felt respectful." However, he recalled an incident hearing an all-white choir sing "No More Auction Block for Me." While this selection is in the UU hymnal, the song—presented without a context—seemed to be inappropriate. As a person of color, he found it hard to express his discomfort, so he said nothing.

Rev. Jason Shelton, Director of Music at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, made a meaningful association with the song, "Annis Dei." He had rehearsed it as a benediction for Easter Sunday. Coinciding with the birth of his daughter, this piece will always have deep meaning for him. He has the opposite experience with a song styled to sound like an African-American spiritual. Rhythmically, it didn't sound right, and even choir's movement was not right. To Shelton, it seemed like a caricature. Intended to bring the audience together, the piece left him alone with the feeling the piece wasn't appropriate.

Beth Norton, Music Director at First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, described a very memorable musical moment. When she returned to church in her 20s, she heard a hymn that carried so much meaning for her that she had to stop singing it. This made her realize how powerful a role music would play in her spiritual path. She then described once hearing a well-intentioned rap on the seven principles which felt like parody. Norton felt as if it was betraying the UU tradition, if not the hip-hop tradition, as well.

Rev. David Takahashi Morris, of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church, UU, Charlottesville, Virginia, related a story of being in a marching band while at Michigan State University. 275 players had to run through a tunnel to the field before playing, and he confessed he faked the first few notes because he was out of breath. He recalls how he felt willing to abandon himself to the musical experience in that moment. His marginalizing moment was having a singer perform in his church. The man rendered a moving gospel song telling of a blind man's experience with Jesus. But since UUs don't worship Jesus, the piece felt out of place. "We had invited someone because we wanted his groove ," discerns Morris, "but not his theology."

Rev. Danielle Di Bona, from First Universalist Church of Rockland, Maine, related her stories. At a meeting of Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUMM), someone began "Lean on Me" as a solo, but the whole congregation was moved to join in, making it a communal experience. However, Di Bona has been distressed by the hymnal selection, "We'll Build a Land." The piece upsets her from her perspective as a Native American UU. For her, it describes the "white" culture's actions in taking Native Americans lands and, often, their lives. She suggests singing "We'll Build a Church" as an alternative.

Ginny Courter, Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Moderator and member of the UU Congregation of Grand Traverse in Traverse City, Michigan, related some high and low moments, as well. When she heard the Seven Sources Cantata for the first time, she wept. Having been raised a Methodist, the humanist piece "No Other World" deeply spoke to her, and she felt herself transcended by the cantata. During her travels around the country, Courter visits local UU churches. One particular time, she attended a church that was exploring UU sources. Through misguided interpretation, the service omitted their offertory collection because, they stated, Native Americans don't believe in money.

As the committee had to develop a way to discuss about these issues, attendees were invited to share similar stories with each other. While there is risk in sharing such stories, UUs have to be in conversation with each other in our struggle for authenticity.

Rev. Morris advised the preconditions for a conversation are willingness to discover deep meaning, and listening without judgment. "We have to be willing to deal with when we get it wrong," he reasoned, "and the pain we have unintentionally inflicted."

"Songs have a history," Rev. Shelton noted, "but they also have a future. If we don't know what it is, then we shouldn't be singing it." He explained that trust is earned by taking on the responsibility of explaining the context.

"No piece of music is wrong to use," said Mishra, but he admonishes us to ask, "but how is it used? If you provide a cultural context, it can be quite a powerful way to explore another traditional heritage."

The session conclude with "There's a River Flowing in My Soul," a piece written by Rose Saunders, who was Alabama's first female African American judge.

Reported by Toby Haber; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.