Sunday, January 15, 2012

Martin Luther King Jr.: The "Vast Unity" of Worship

It is Martin Luther King Day here in the United States; it is also the start of a new semester. As I was preparing to teach my course Religion and the Civil Rights Movement, I ran into a sermon King preached early in his ministry at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Here is an excerpt:
Although private worship is significant and uplifting it must not be a stopping point. A worship period on the radio cannot be a substitute for a worship period in a church Worship at its best is a social experience where people of all levels of  life come together and communicate with a common father Here the employer and the employee, the rich and the poor, the white collar worker and the common laborer all come together in a vast unity Here we come to see that although we have different callings in life we are all the children of a common father, who is the father of both the rich and the poor. This fellowship and sense of oneness that we get in public worship cannot be surpassed.
King preached this sermon in the middle of the Montgomery Bus Boycot during the early days of the civil rights movement. Dexter Avenue was a society church and it is reasonable to assume that King's insights came more from his recent experiences of the mass meetings in churches like Ralph Abernathy's First Baptist than from his own congregation. It was from the maids and college professors, the lawyers and laborers rubbing shoulders and singing hymns together at the mass meetings that King glimpsed the "vast unity" created and celebrated in Christian worship.

The irony is that King preached this sermon about the "vast unity" of "public worship" to an exclusively black congregation. That, of course, was the social reality of segregation in Montgomery, Alabama in the 1950s.

Fifty-six years later, it turns out that pews are far more difficult to integrate than busses. There have been a slew of books in last 15 years studying race and congregations in the United States (I am afraid I contributed my own volume to the pile). The most recent addition concerns itself specifically with the role of music in the creation (or obstruction) of King's "vast unity." This month, Oxford University Press published Worship Across the Racial Divide: religious music and the multi-racial congregation by sociologist Gerardo Marti. I am only a couple of chapters into this book but it is already provocative. Marti recognizes the importance of worship music in constituting churches. He writes that “Music might be the single greatest determinant of a congregation’s racial composition" (4). At the same time he dismisses any attempts to find the perfect type of multi-cultural worship or song selection which will magically fill your church with a diverse smattering of African American, Anglo, Hispanic and Asian worshippers. He warns us: “misguided worship practices based on faulty racial assumptions . . . can accentuate rather than relieve the pervasive racial tensions in American Christianity" (6).

Marti seems to be arguing (from his introduction) that it is the practice of making music -- of going through the hard work of learning to sing the same song together -- that appears to him to be crucial to the success of a multiracial church.


This Sunday we sang Libby's hymn "Make Us New" set to Cyril Tawney's tune Grey Funnel Line (click link to listen). Reflecting this MLK day on the fractured state of our churches and society--so far from the vast unity of the Kingdom of God that King glimpsed in Montgomery back in 1955--I think this hymn is an appropriate confession, prayer and call to action.
Batter our hearts, three-person'd God,
As yet you knock, and seek to mend,
That we may rise, your force now bend
To break us and make us new.
O God, we're broken; Come, make us new.
Blessed are you poor, and you who weep,
Blessed are you hungry, you who seek peace,
All those who hear, hear this anew:
Pray for and love those who curse you.
O God, we're broken; Come, make us new.

God, we confess we err and stray.
Turn all our darkness into your day.
And send us out to love and serve,
To do the work you give us to do
O God, we're broken; Come, make us new.
 (adapted from John Donne, Luke 6:20-22 and the Book of Common Prayer (pdf. music & words))

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