Singing for Freedom

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is by Bernice Johnson Reagon, scholar, composer, and singer in the a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock:

“I have had singing in my life since I was a young child. However, my experience with the performance of music form a formal concert stage came by way of the Civil Rights Movement and a group called the SNCC Freedom Singers. We were a group of a capella singers, but we were first field secretaries for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the organization of the Movement formed by student leaders who left their campuses to work full-time against racial injustice in the United States. The Freedom Singers… began to travel throughout the country singing freedom songs to anybody who would listen. Being a fighter for freedom in the Movement meant that our stages were wherever we were, and the songs were a way of coming together, holding each other and proclaiming our determination as citizens to fight racism in this land of our birth. The Freedom Singers sang in concert halls, schools, living rooms, clubs, folk festivals, in elementary, junior, and senior high schools, in colleges and universities. As a group, our concerts were often a way of introducing and connecting people who wanted to find ways to be a part of the Movement, to the culture and energy of activism taking place….

“As a singing participant in the Movement, I began to notice how well the old songs we knew fit our current situation. Many of the freedom songs we sang we had learned as spirituals, sacred songs created by slaves. Our struggle against racism often found us reaching for connections with those who had during the nineteenth century fought to end slavery in this country….”

[If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song TraditionUniversity of Nebraska Press, 2000), pp. 100, 104]

The second reading is from the book Sing and Shine On: A Teacher’s Guide to Multicultural Song-leading by Nick Page. Nick is a composer, conductor, and teacher who is a Unitarian Universalist who grew up in our church in Lexington, Massachuestts. Nick writes:

“An interdependent system is one in which every action affects every other action. A forest fire in Brazil affects the weather in Moscow by creating huge dust clouds that eventually float over Russia. Every element in an ecosystem depends on every other element, even the so-called nonliving elements such as minerals, oxygen, and sunlight. Yes, light is an integral element of all life. The sun is food for many of earth’s life forms. Physicists speak of photons of light as being interchangeable. When the light from an object hits a person, only some of it bounces off. Most of the photons are absorbed in the person. Its energy becomes that person’s energy. This is how incredible interdependence is — everything is constantly becoming everything else — as when you spend a lot of time in a forest or at a beach. More than memory remains with you after you have left.

“After a powerful singing celebration, I leave with the power of the event still with me. The sense of harmony and connectedness remains. This feeling of being connected to everything is an incredible feeling — truly transcending. We walk in beauty, in harmony with the world around us.

“The meanings of the survival of the fittest do not work in the context of an interdependent system. A herd of caribou, for example, survive by caring for each other, protecting each other from harm. And yes, the wolf survives by attacking the caribou, but the wolf attacks the weakest member of the herd, thus enduring the strength of the herd as a whole. The survival instinct is universal. Competition and cooperation are both parts of this instinct.

“When we sing together, our cooperation and interdependence become the perfect analogy for the interdependence and cooperation within nature….

“Although we humans claim that it is independence from each other that we crave, we truly cannot live without each other or other forms of living things. All life is interdependent with all other life. We have many kinds of bacteria that live inside our bodies. Without them, we could not digest our food. The bacteria are not separate guests inside us — they are part of us, what biologists call host/parasite relationships. We aren’t as independent as we think. This also applies to our place in both our cultures and the natural world. We are very interdependent creatures.”


Why is singing so important to our religion? In a one hour worship service, we sing together four times, totaling perhaps ten minutes of singing; in other words, approximately one sixth of each worship service is devoted to singing together. Why do we devote so much of our worship service to singing? In a traditionally Christian church, we would sing together in order to glorify God; however, in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, some of us do not believe in God, others of us may believe in some form of God or divinity but don’t see that singing to that God or divinity is necessary, and of course there are those who do sing hymns in order to glorify God or the divine; but we have no consensus, so we can’t say that we all sing to glorify God because that would not be a true statement for all of us. So why do we Unitarian Universalists sing in church? It seems to me that we sing together for the purpose of transforming ourselves and transforming the world.

About a year ago, I read Bernice Johnson Reagon’s book, If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me. Now Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon is someone for whom I have the deepest respect. I first came to know her as a singer and the founder of the a capella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and I have respect for her fantastic voice and musicianship. But Dr. Reagon is also a scholar, and I respect her scholarship into African American music and folk traditions, and her work in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and the fact that she has been awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. She is also a social activist, who first became active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and has never stopped fighting for social and racial justice — I believe I first heard her singing live at a 1978 rally in Washington, D.C., for the ill-fated effort of putting women’s rights in the U.S. constitution. So anyway, Bernice Johnson Reagon is one of my heroines.

Thus I was particularly struck by one thing in particular that she wrote in her book If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me. She said: “As a singing participant in the [Civil Rights] Movement, I began to notice how well the old songs we knew fit our current situation. Many of the freedom songs we sang we had learned as spirituals, sacred songs created by slaves. Our struggle against racism often found us reaching for connections with those who had during the nineteenth century fought to end slavery in this country.” When Bernice Johnson Reagon and other members of the Civil Rights Movement needed songs to lift them up during the long hard fight for civil rights, they were able to draw on their vast repertoire of spirituals, that is of sacred music that they learned in church.

Although I have been hanging around Unitarian Universalist churches all my life, I can’t say that I have such a vast repertoire of sacred songs to draw upon; but then, I don’t have a particularly good memory for music; I’d say I know less than a dozen songs from our hymnal by heart all the way through, if you don’t count the Christmas carols. However, most of the hymns that I do know all the way through tend to be the songs that are related to social justice and transforming the world. I know Holly Near’s “We Are a Gentle Angry People” by heart because years ago I sang it at pro-choice rallies. I know “We Shall Overcome” because when I was a child we had that song on Pete Seeger’s album of songs from the Civil Rights Movement, which we played over and over and over again. Of course I know “This Little Light of Mine,” which I probably learned in my Unitarian Universalist Sunday school, but which I know by heart because I have sung it at events like last year’s Christian Peace Witness for Iraq.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing is true of many of you. Unitarian Universalists tend to be politically active, so even if you are new to Unitarian Universalism, chances are pretty good that you have run into such songs as “Gonna Lay Down My Sword and Shield,” a staple in the American peace movement, or “We Are a Gentle Angry People,” well-known at gay pride events, or “Lift Up Every Voice and Sing,” the African American national anthem, or “Step By Step the Longest March,” an old union song — and each of these songs is also in our gray hymnal. Singing songs like these is inherently a religious act, because it can help us to transcend our narrow selves and experience deep interconnection with other people and the entire universe. And singing has the power to help transform the world for the better, which is also an essentially religious act — at least, in my understanding of what religion is, or should be.

But this may not be entirely obvious as yet. So let me give you three examples of how singing can be transformative.


Let us begin with the most dramatic example of all: the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which has been called the “singingest movement ever.” And I’d like to give you a very specific example of how singing empowered people, how singing allowed people to draw strength from one another.

Candie Anderson was one of the people who got arrested during the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, in February of 1960 — forty-eight years ago this month. She was an exchange student at Fisk University, a white student at a black university. The African Americans of Nashville had already begun to push at the segregationist policies and laws, and by the end of 1959, students were being trained in how to do direct non-violent protest. Then on February 1, 1960, off in Greensboro, North Carolina, four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat down at that segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter, asked to be served, and got national press coverage. Their action galvanized the students in Nashville. On February 13, the Nashville students staged their first large-scale sit-ins, and they kept at it all month long.

Candie Anderson, that young white exchange student at Fisk University, wasn’t sure at first what she should do. She asked herself: “The biggest question for me was the rather lonely one of what can a white student do? What would my presence at the lunch-counter mean? Would I alienate and enrage the community to a greater extent than the Negro students? Or would it whos that this is more than a Negro problem? I didn’t know….” She decided that she was going to stand in solidarity with her black friends and fellow students, and she, too, participated in the sit-ins.

By February 27, the white segregationists started to fight back. When the students from Fisk and other area colleges staged a sit-in, this time they were met with violence, and more than eighty students were arrested. Candie Anderson and a few of the other white students who were participating in the sit-ins also were arrested — but when they got to the prison, she had a shock awaiting her. Here’s what she wrote about it:

“We were crammed into a narrow hallway to await booking and I studied the faces around me. Many were calm and serious, some were relaxed… a few were really frightened. But there was a unity — a closeness beyond proximity. It was a shock then to be suddenly removed from this large coherent group and thrust into a lonely cell with only one other girl, the only other white female. We protested and inquired why we could not join the large group of Negro girls across the hall. The entire jail was segregated…. The contact which became more real then was vocal. Never have I heard such singing. Spirituals, pop tunes, hymns, and even old slurpy love songs all became so powerful. The men sang to the women and the girls and the girls down the hall answered them. They shouted over to us to make sure we were joining in…. We sang a good part of our eight hour confinement that first time. The city policemen seemed to enjoy the singing….” [Sing for Freedom, Guy and Candie Carawan, p. 22.]

This is part of what Bernice Johnson Reagon means when she says, “the songs were a way of coming together, holding each other and proclaiming our determination as citizens to fight racism in this land of our birth.” Songs have the power to draw people together, to unify them in an expression of truth and beauty. Songs help us express our deepest commitments in a way that can make them understandable even by those who oppose us: Candie Anderson wrote that on the date of the first trials in Nashville, as the students were going into the courthouse, she saw something remarkable. She wrote: “I looked out at the curb where the police were patrolling, and caught one big burly cop leaning back against his car, singing away [about] “Civil Rights”… He saw me watching him, stopped abruptly, turned, and walked to the other side of the car.” [Ibid., p. 24] So wrote Candie Anderson. And this is precisely what the poet William Congreave meant when he said, “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast,/ To soften rocks, or to bend a Knotted Oak.”


Let me give you another example of how songs transformed the world. This story takes place in central Europe after the First World War, when the Czech and Slovak people were finally allowed to form the new country of Czechoslovakia, after having been dominated by the Austrian Empire for centuries. The Austrians had imposed Roman Catholicism on the Czechs and the Slovaks, but as soon as Czechoslovakia was liberated from Austrian domination, the citizens of this new country began to form their own churches.

Norbert and Maja Capek were two Czech people who had fled their homeland because of the Austrians. They had both become Unitarians while in the United States. When Czechoslovakina independence came, Norbert and Maja Capek returned to their new country, and they started a Unitarian church, because they felt that the principles of religious freedom inherent in Unitarianism were perfect for their new country. So they started a Unitarian church in Prague, and in fifteen years it became the largest Unitarian church in the world.

One of the difficulties they faced in starting their own church was what songs they should sing. The old songs from the Catholic tradition came with memories of political domination; they needed new songs for their new religion. So Norbert began writing songs for his church; he wrote hundreds of songs; and some of his songs became so popular that they entered into the folk music of the land, and they are still sung today in the Czech Republic.

When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, the Capeks decided that Maja would leave for the United States, where she could raise money for relief efforts; so she came here, and as it happens she wound up living the New Bedford, and became the minister of the old North Unitarian church in our city. Norbert stayed in Czechoslovakia, and he was quickly imprisoned by the Nazis. At first, he was held in Dresden prison; and while he was there, to keep up his spirits, and the spirits of the others whom the Nazis had imprisoned, he wrote songs. Let me read you an English translation of one of the songs he wrote in Dresden prison:

“In the depth of my soul
There where lies the source of strength
Where the divine and the human meet,
There, quiet your mind, quiet, quiet.
Outside let lightning reign,
Horrible darkness frighten the world.
But from the depths of your own soul
From that silence will rise again
God’s flower.
Return to your self,
Rest in your self,
Live in the depths of your soul
Where the divine and the human meet….
There is your refuge.”

I would like to tell you that Norbert Capek’s songs gained his release from prison, but such is not the case: he died in Dachau prison camp in 1942. This is a story that does not have a happy ending. But while his songs did not gain his release from prison, I feel sure that they did gain him some measure of inner freedom, inner comfort and peace. And the songs that he wrote over the course of his life did leave a lasting legacy: his songs transformed individuals, and his songs helped to transform a national culture.

This is a remarkable thing: that a song, something completely insubstantial and evanescent, can change people

In the second reading this morning, we heard one possible explanation of why this is so. In the second reading, Nick Page, a singer, choral director, and composer, tells us that we are all interconnected, and we are interconnected with the entire earth. Nick tells us that while he is singing with other people, he gets a deep feeling of that interconnectedness, and that even afterwards (he says): “The sense of harmony and connectedness remains. This feeling of being connected to everything is an incredible feeling — truly transcending. We walk in beauty, in harmony with the world around us.”

So says Nick Page, and I think he’s right. Nick talks about how singing can literally transform us at a biological level. For a very crude example, I would point out that one reason we sing a song right before the sermon is so that we can all stand up and get some oxygen into our lungs, which means it is less likely that any of us will fall asleep during the sermon. There are also physical phenomena in singing that physically affect our biological beings. Additionally, songs help us to encounter the beauty and mystery of this world, songs can open to us the wonder of the universe. The act of singing transforms us physically, biologically, emotionally, and spiritually.


Singing transforms us, but singing may be an endangered species. Rather than sing yourself, it’s so much easier to sit back and check out music videos on YouTube, or plug into your iPod’s earphones. And if you do sing yourself, you don’t have to sing directly to other people: you can go off by yourself and record your singing, or you can sing through a microphone; both of which are fine things to do, but what is lost in those cases is the direct contact between singers, or between a singer and an audience. Part of the sacred beauty of singing arises when you hear it directly, unmediated by any electronics; because even the best electronics attenuate the highest overtones, even the best electronics change the music subtly so that it doesn’t have the same physical and emotional effect on us. If you’re a listener, much of music’s power comes from being face-to-face with the musician, and a live performance that is technically flawed but where you connect directly with another person is far more powerful than any recording, or any amplification can be.

I’ll give you an example of what I mean: Sometimes when I stand here and sing a hymn while Randy is playing the organ, I suddenly find myself literally resonating with the notes of our organ. The organ and the human body produce sound in very similar ways, similar enough that you can find your lungs and throat vibrating in sympathetic vibration to the organ. And when you are singing with other people, when you really get in tune with the other people, if you listen carefully you will hear a whole world of overtones opening up in the music. And when we are singing with the marimba, as we are doing today, the sound of the marimba fills this room, and when we sing along, we are drawn up into the sound.

What I am describing of course are moments of transcendence: when we transcend ordinary experience and become aware of how we are interconnected with the universe. When I go to church, I hope for those moments of transcendence; I don’t always get them, but I hope for them. There are moments of passive transcendence, as when we sit and listen to transcendently beautiful music; but what I value most are the moments of active transcendence, when I am an active participant in transcending.

This is why I think we sing in church: to experience little moments of transcendence. This does not imply that we must sing as well as Billie Holliday or Placido Domingo or Paul McCartney. The students from Fisk University who sang in the Nashville jail weren’t professional singers, but their singing helped them to transcend their situation. Norbert Capek was not a great singer, but his songs helped him and others to transcend Dresden prison.

And this is equally true of ordinary people in ordinary life today. Perhaps you read the article in last week’s Sunday New York Times, describing song circles or community singalongs — many of which happen to meet in Unitarian Universalist churches — these are groups of ordinary people who come together to sing, and when these ordinary people sing together, so the article said, something extraordinary can happen. In our culture today, we are taught to be passive consumers of music; but when we sing together, we are no longer mere passive consumer: we are creating something ourselves. That means we are resisting the forces that seek to make us less than human and oppress us by turning us into mere consumers; but when we sing together, we find that we are fully human and spiritual beings who transcend mere consumerism.

Singing is an ordinary act, it is something babies do without thinking about it. But singing together is also transcendent. By transcending the ordinary, we wing as a path to liberation:– both spiritual liberation, and literal liberation from the oppressive forces that seek to dominate us. We sing to know our interconnectedness:– in a world where there is so little community, where we are fragmented by race, age, class, singing can serve to build connections between us. The singer Holly Near says: We are singing for our lives. We are indeed.