Finding the soul of African-American sacred music

GREENVILLE — Participants at the Archbishop James Patterson Lykes Conference, hosted by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, were exposed to the evangelizing power of African-American sacred music in the Catholic Church this summer.

Jesuit Father Joseph Brown, Ph.D., director of Black American Studies at Southern Illinois University in Cabondale, spoke on the healing power of Gospel music. He explained that Gospel music was the Bible for African-Americans during times of slavery because they were not allowed to read Bibles. These songs provided the strength they needed to survive the pain and suffering they endured.

An example of that tradition is found in the following lyrics: “ I got shoes, you got shoes, all of God’s children got shoes, and one of these days I’m gonna put on my shoes and walk all over God’s heaven. Heav’n, heav’n ev’rybody talkin’ ’bout heav’n ain’t goin’ there heav’n, heav’n. Goin’ to shout all over God’s heaven.” The song is about a slave who did not have shoes and who knew that if he had them he could run away from the master without hurting his feet. He saw shoes as his way out of his enslavement, but was unable to get them. His belief that all of God’s children would have shoes provided the strength he needed to endure his turmoil.

Father Brown believes that Negro spirituals should be included in every Mass because they provide spiritual healing.

Kevin P. Johnson, Ph.D., chair of the music department at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga., was one of the representatives from the African American Catholic community who focused on enhancing today’s worship through enculturation and education in a richly African-American and authentically Catholic environment. That July weekend of liturgical education included supporting vocations among African-American Catholics, youth leadership development, and sacramental marriages in the church.

Johnson spoke about his paper, “African-American Sacred Music in Catholic Worship” (2004). He said that today’s Gospel music in the Catholic Church has helped transform the way many Catholics worship God in the Mass and in their lives. Gospel music has been the core of African-Americans’ survival in America; it allows them to worship God in a manner befitting their cultural practices in the Mass.

Johnson identifies the development of music ministries as the key to the survival of the black church in the twenty-first century.

It is important that pastors support current liturgical reforms in a manner conducive to the cultural expression of worshiping communities as mandated by Vatican II.

Because of the shortage of African-American Catholic musicians, many black Catholic churches are forced to recruit musicians from Protestant churches.

These musicians may bring Protestant traditions and try to make them fit into Catholic liturgy. Johnson warns that some songs created in the Protestant churches have religious connotations that do not translate to the Catholic experience. These musicians must be trained for ministry in the black Catholic Church. Sacred music for the African-American Catholic community creates a mutually balanced worship environment that is authentically black and Catholic.

Some black Catholics prefer the European Catholic model of worship. Johnson describes the African-American musical experience in Catholic worship as consisting of traditional music of Africa with drums, Euro-American hymns, Negro spirituals, Gospel music, jazz, pop, rap and European Catholic music.

The soul of African-American sacred music can be found in the “Lead Me Guide Me Hymnal.” Clarence Rivers, Thea Bowman, Grayson Brown, Leon Roberts, Rawn Harbor, Ray East, Kevin Johnson and many others have composed outstanding worship music that is truly African-American and Catholic.

The Diocese of Charleston will be able to learn more when Johnson presents an African-American sacred music workshop Jan. 28 at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston. For information on training and resources on African-American sacred music, contact the Office of Ethnic Ministries at (864) 234-9009 ext. 121.

Kathleen Merritt is director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries.