Chant as a Spiritual Practice

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is titled “Meditative Singing,” instructions on singing, from the website of the Taizé community in France:

“Singing is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short songs, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Using just a few words they express a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind. As the words are sung over many times, this reality gradually penetrates the whole being. Meditative singing thus becomes a way of listening to God. It allows everyone to take part in a time of prayer together and to remain together in attentive waiting on God, without having to fix the length of time too exactly….Nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of ‘heaven’s joy on earth,’ as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.

“These songs also sustain personal prayer…. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts….”

The second reading is from The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, a 1979 book by Starhawk:

“Witchcraft has always been a religion of poetry, not theology. The myths, legends, and teachings are recognized as metaphors for “That-Which-Cannot-Be-Told,” the absolute reality our limited minds can never completely know. The mysteries of the absolute can never be explained-only felt or intuited. Symbols and ritual acts are used to trigger altered states of awareness, in which insights that go beyond words are revealed.

“When we speak of ‘the secrets that cannot be told,’ we do not mean merely that rules prevent us from speaking freely. We mean that the inner knowledge literally cannot be expressed in words. It can only be conveyed by experience, and no one can legislate what insight another person may draw from any given experience. For example, after the ritual described at the opening of this chapter, one woman said, ‘As we were chanting, I felt that we blended together and became one voice; I sensed the oneness of everybody.’ Another woman said, ‘I became aware of how different the chant sounded for each of us, of how unique each person is.’ A man said simply, ‘I felt loved.’ To a Witch, all of these statements are equally true and valid….”

Sermon: “Chant as a Spiritual Practice”

One of the most interesting aspects of being a Unitarian Universalist is that we are not told what kind of spiritual practice we are supposed to do. No one tells us that we should read the Bible regularly, as happens for many Protestants. No one suggests that we light the shabbat candles on Friday evening, as is true for many Jews. No one reminds us to pray salat five times a day, which is the case for many Muslims. No one calls on us to do chant the sutras, something which is true for many Buddhists.

We Unitarian Universalists don’t have a prescribed spiritual practice. I believe this is mostly for very pragmatic reasons. We have learned that individuals can be quite different from one another. While we generally feel that having some kind of spiritual practice is a good idea (most of the time), we recognize that what works for one person may not work for another. So we might suggest to one another that we find some kind of spiritual practice, if that’s something we feel the need for. But there are no requirements, no guilt if you don’t need a spiritual practice. (Guilt if you don’t help make the world a better place, maybe, but no guilt around spiritual practices.)

There is one downside to this pragmatic flexibility. If you decide that you’d like to engage in some kind of spiritual practice, sometimes it’s hard to know which one to try. How do we find spiritual practices that work for us?

This is more or less the situation I found myself in back in the 1990s. As a young adult Unitarian Universalist, I had tried and given up on prayer and meditation. I still attended Sunday services when I could, but I had a vague feeling that it would be nice to have something I could do not just on Sundays, but all week long.

It was about this time that I started going to some Unitarian Universalist young adult conferences, and I went to a Unitarian Universalist summer conference for the first time. Back in the 1990s, there were a lot of Unitarian Universalists who were also involved in Neo-paganism and other earth-centered traditions. I met some of these Neo-pagans both at the young adult conferences and at the summer conference, and discovered that they all seemed to repertoire of earth-centered chants and songs. I had never run into chanting before. I liked the simple repetitive feeling of the chants, because they stuck in my memory better. I also liked the meaning of the lyrics — a deep feeling of connection with the non-human world, and with the human world as well. As Starhawk said in the second reading, when I sang these chants with these Neo-pagans, we blended together and became one voice.

Chant lies somewhere between the spoken word and singing, and it has both the power of music and the power of the spoken word. It is deceptively simple, and it can be inspiring and moving. I soon found out that chanting of this type is found in almost every culture around the world. Here, for example, is a chant from Hawai’i…. [At this point, Mike Nakashima sang “Oli Mahalo,” or “Gratitude Chant,” an oli (chant) composed by Kehau Camara]

After listening to, and participating in, various kinds of earth-centered chant, I began to become aware of the existence of other types of chant.

In particular, I kept hearing about something people were calling Taizé. My first direct experience with Taizé song and chant involved one person teaching a simple song, and then leading a group of us as we sang it over and over again. The melodies were a bit more complex than the earth-centered chants I already knew, but it didn’t seem all that interesting. It turns out that Taizé chant is more than just simple melodies that are sung over and over. Most Taizé chants are meant to be sung as rounds, or with four-part harmony. If people can’t sing all the harmony parts, there might be someone like Mary Beth to play those other parts on a piano or other instrument.

I found that, for me, Taizé chants were not as elemental and ecstatic as the earth-centered chants I had heard and sung. But they were deeply meditative. Because they were repeated over and over, it was easier for me to learn one of the harmony parts. And even though it was far more structured than the earth-centered chant, Taizé chant also gave me that same feeling of connection to the people I was singing with.

There are other aspects of Taizé chant that I especially valued. First, while Taizé chants are distinctly Christian, there is a real effort to make them non-sectarian. The Taizé community in France, home of the chants, is a monastic community that welcomes anyone from any Christian denomination. Second, in an era when most Western religious groups seem to ignore young adults, the Taizé community makes a point to especially welcome young adults. Finally, the Taizé community has a distinctly internationalist perspective: an individual Taizé chant might be translated into twenty or more languages. “Nada Te Turbe,” a Taizé chant that we’ve been learning here at First Parish, and that we’ll sing in just a moment, has been translated into twenty-one languages. Thus, Taizé chant is meant to bind together a world that has become divided by religion, by age, and by language. Let’s sing together a Taizé chant that we’ve been singing a lot recently, “Nada Te Turbe.”

The third type of chant that I’d like to introduce to you comes from the Threshold Choir. The Threshold Choir was started by a woman named Kate Munger, who felt a need for a kind of healing music that could be sung to people who were dying. She began teaching others her singing techniques and her repertoire of songs, until now there are many Threshold Choirs. This past July, Kate Munger and the original Threshold Choir honored for their work by being invited to sing in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.

About fifteen years ago, I took a workshop with Kate Munger, and learned some of her techniques for singing to people who are dying. She has singers sit around the person who is dying. The singers sing gently and quietly, but with power. Thus the person in the middle of the circle of singers is surrounding with gentle song. When her Threshold Choir groups are practicing, they take turns sitting in the center of the circle so they can experience what it feels like to be sung to. This helps all the singers listen better to one another, and it helps the singers to have great empathy with the people for whom they sing.

Some people have expanded the Threshold Choir concept to include singing to people who are ill or unwell, but not actually dying. My home congregation has such a choir, which they call the By Your Side Singers. My family had direct experience of the By Your Side Signers: in the last year and a half of my father’s life, they would go to his residential facility and sing to him. He was no longer able to talk so I don’t really know what he thought about it, but I liked the fact that someone would come and pay that kind of attention to my dad.

Even though I took a workshop with Kate Munger, I’ve never actually participated in a Threshold Choir myself, nor in one of the healing choirs like the one that sang to my father. But some of the Threshold Choir songs have stuck with me all these years, and I find myself singing them to myself. In the past couple of weeks, with all the turmoil in the world, I find myself singing one of these songs called “In These Times,” a short song I learned from my exposure to the Threshold Choir.

Chant begins as a communal activity: it’s something we do together; it’s something that is done in cultures around the world; it’s something that can bind us to people who are quite unlike ourselves. At the same time, chant can also be an individual practice as well, a kind of meditative singing that — to use the words of the Taizé community — “can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others, or resting.”

This means that chant is one of those spiritual practices that helps build community. Even when you practice it on your own, it is at heart a communal activity. Actually, this is true of any kind of singing — as you probably know, singing in community leads to all kinds of benefits, including relieving stress, boosting your immune response, develops a sense of wellbeing and meaningful connection to others, enhances memory including enhancing memory in dementia patients, helps with grief, calms your heart rate, improves sleep, and on and on.

This, by the way, is the pragmatic reason behind singing hymns in our Sunday services — singing is good for us. But honestly, some of our hymns are difficult to sing. By contrast, because many chants are relatively simple songs they can be learned more easily, even someone with little or no musical ability. At the same time, chant can provide interesting possibilities for skilled musicians: a more skilled singer might be able to sing a harmony part, or add accompaniment with a musical instrument that doesn’t overwhelm the simplicity of the chant.

Whether you’re a skilled musician or someone with no musical ability, the key to participating in chant is learning how to listen. Whether it’s chanting or singing, listen to the people with whom you’re singing or chanting. It is by listening while chanting in a group that the chants stick in your heart and mind; and in that way they can become a part of your everyday spiritual practice. This reveals to us a great religious truth. We can’t just follow a song leader or some other authority figure. We have to actually participate. Participating requires us to listen to those around us. So it is we give voice to what’s in our hearts and minds, and at the same time listening to what others are voicing is in their hearts and minds. This is how community is built: by listening, and by putting yourself out there, both at the same time.

Education and Our Congregation

Sermon is copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Reading: “For You O Democracy”

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the [life-long] love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you…!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

— Walt Whitman

Sermon: “Education and Our Congregation”

We Unitarian Universalists have our “seven principles,” a statement of values that our congregations agree to. These seven principles are not a creed, mind you; they’re a set of value statements. And one of those seven values statements talks about how we “affirm and promote” … “the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” I will make an even stronger statement than this. We do not just affirm and promote democratic process. I’m convinced our Unitarian Universalist congregations have an important role to play in maintaining a healthy democracy.

Yet in spite of my firm conviction that our Unitarian Universalist congregations help maintain a healthy democracy, I find it difficult to explain how we do this. The role we play in maintaining a healthy democracy is not simple and straightforward; it is subtle and complex. This morning, I would like to speak with you about one of the more important ways we help maintain a healthy democracy. And that is that we train our young people — our children in teens — in the democratic process. Our religious education programs support healthy democracy. It may not be part of the explicit curriculum we teach, but democratic process is central to our implicit curriculum; it is woven into everything our young people do in our congregation.

Our Unitarian Universalist religious education programs have four main goals. First, we aim have fun together and build community. Second, we want children to gain basic skills associated with liberal religion, such as public speaking, skills of cooperation, interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills, basic group singing, and so on. Third, we aim to teach basic religious literacy. Fourth, we want to prepare young people to become Unitarian Universalists, if they choose to do so when they’re old enough to decide on their own.

Now let me explain how each of these four educational goals helps teach young people how to participate in democracy.

The first of our educational goals is to have fun and build community. On the surface, this is an entirely pragmatic goal. Religious education is but one of a great many options open to children and teens. If our programs are going to compete with sports, robotics, or video games, our programs had better be fun. But on a deeper level, we need children and teens to feel that they are a part of a community before we can reach some of the other goals. For example, when we offer Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality education classes, young people need to feel relatively safe talking with one another when it comes time to talk about difficult issues and to think about personal goals.

This same principle applies to us adults. We can work more effectively together on committees if we first take the time to get to know one another. It’s easier to rely on one another for help during life’s adversities, if we’ve taken the time to get to know one another first. Then, too, when the inevitable conflict arise, it is easier to manage those conflict productively if we know one another first.

For both adults and young people, we know the basic techniques of building community and having fun together. Eating together is a great way to have fun and build community. Before starting a Sunday school class, or a committee meeting, we take time to check in with one another, each person sharing something about what’s going on in their personal lives. Working together on a common project is actually one of the most effective ways to build community.

This is true of society beyond our congregations, too. Out in California, I volunteered at a homeless shelter, and one of the other volunteers belonged to the local Christian evangelical church. We strongly disagreed with each other about things like abortion, homosexuality, and climate change, but our shared work at the homeless shelter meant we developed respect for each other. Once people have developed mutual respect through sharing work and fun, we are much less likely to demonize one another when we start debating polarizing political issues. Since demonizing others is destructive to democracy, then we can see how learning to build community helps strengthen democracy.

The second goal for our religious education programs is to build the skills associated with liberal religion. Partly, we want to give young people skills to work together towards common goals. We want them to be able to serve on committees when they get older, so we teach them how to compromise, how to look for common ground, how to disagree respectfully, and so on. We want them to be able to communicate their ideas clearly and without being nervous, so we help them speak in small groups such as classes — and a key feature of our Coming of Age programs for grade 8 through 10 is helping young people to speak with ease and comfort in front of the entire congregation. We teach them interpersonal skills, skills like listening well to others, searching for common goals, being empathetic, and so on. We teach them intrapersonal skills, skills like learning how to identify one’s own feelings, learning where the core of one’s being is, moderating one’s own feelings.

Our democracy would be stronger if more people learned these skills. Our democracy needs people who can aim for the highest ideals but who also know when and how to compromise. Our democracy needs people who know how to speak well in public, not to manipulate others, but to encourage people to work together. Our democracy needs people who have enough self-awareness to know what they feel and to know how to listen to the feelings of others.

Another of the skills associated with liberal religion is group singing. Believe it or not, group singing can also serve to strengthen democracy. When we sing together, interesting physiological and psychological things happen to us. Group singing releases hormones that help moderate the amygdala. The amygdala, sometimes called the “lizard brain,” generates some of our most primitive and destructive emotions, so moderating the amygdala is a good thing. In addition, when we sing together, our breathing and our heart rates synchronize, and I believe this physiological response can help people of all ages learn empathy at a deep level.

So all these skills associated with liberal religion, even group singing, can help young people build a strong democracy.

On to the third educational goal: religious literacy. This is not an abstract academic educational goal. Several years ago, I attended a presentation by a doctoral candidate who was researching religious literacy. She found that good religious literacy programs in high school and middle school measurably reduce bullying. Her research supports what the American Academy of Religion says about religious il-literacy: “One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.” So says the American Academy of Religion in their religious literacy guidelines for grades K-12.

You have to understand that for most people, religion has little to do with intellectual assent to doctrines or philosophical positions. Instead, religion has more in common with the expressive arts, with political life, with culture more generally. The big divide is not between religion and science, but between science and the arts and humanities. Just as the arts and humanities teach us how to have a deeper understanding of other human beings, so too does religious literacy.

And thus we can conclude that learning religious literacy will help strengthen democracy.

Finally, a brief mention of our fourth educational goal: we want to prepare children and teens to become Unitarian Universalists if they choose to do so when they’re old enough to decide on their own. Even this educational goal has a bearing on educating for democracy. Large democracies are made up of smaller groups with different priorities and values. In a healthy democracy, people in these smaller groups have a firm understanding of who they are. They have a nuanced understanding of their core values, and they know that they can choose these values freely. This is exactly the kind of self-knowledge that’s involved in helping young people decide if they are Unitarian Universalists. So even this fourth goal of ours strengthens democracy, by helping young people grow in self-knowledge and self-awareness.

So we teach community building. We teach skills that happen to be useful in a democracy. We teach religious literacy, or cross-cultural understanding. We teach self-knowledge and self-awareness.

All these educational goals teach things that lead to a healthy democracy. A healthy democracy needs people who are know how to build community with one another. A healthy democracy needs people who have skills like empathy, listening well to others, public speaking, and many of the skills that are associated with doing liberal religion. A healthy democracy needs people with skills in cross-cultural understanding. A healthy democracy needs people with self-knowledge and self-awareness.

So you see, the ways in which we teach democratic process to our young people are sometimes subtle and often complex. Yet these are exactly the kinds of skills our young people need to learn. We live in a time when our democracy is in danger precisely because so many Americans lack the skills we teach. When we teach our children the things we teach, we are sending people out into the world who have the skills our country needs.

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.