2009-02-27 / Letters

Church Member Speaks Out

Dear Editor,

In a column in last week's issue of The Wave, Managing Editor Howard Schwach criticized "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," a poem written at the turn of the century by James Weldon Johnson (African American school principal, lawyer and diplomat) and later set to music by his brother. The song became popular in black churches in the 1920s, was sung regularly at NAACP meetings and other social gatherings of African-Americans, and served as one of the many powerful musical inspirations for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, along with "We Shall Over- come" and similar hymns, spirituals and folk songs. " These songs are now in the hymnal of not only traditional African-American churches but those of many ethnically diverse denominations, including First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Rockaway Beach. I am a lay leader of the congregation, and can tell you that our members sing these hymns regularly during services, with a sense of great fellowship with those who fought for social justice in the past, but also, in my view, as an expression of solidarity in the battles yet to be fought and won in our society.

The editor's "disdain for" the song and his declaration that it should be "relegate[d] … to history's dustbin" are based on what he describes as past experiences with those he believed were using the song inappropriately in the New York City public schools to further their own sinister agendas. That's a bit like suggesting we should change to a different design for the American flag because some draft protesters burned them during demonstrations in the 1960s. As for the mention of God in our public schools and in other public uses, attacks on the far more ubiquitous motto "In God We Trust," the words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, and the song "God Bless America" have all failed. True separation of church and state is only one of many guarantees in our constitution that have not yet been achieved.

In the companion book to the PBS series "Eyes on the Prize," Bernice Johnson Reagon explained the importance of music to the civil rights movement. She said that the "mass meetings always started with these freedom songs. Most of the meeting was singing. Songs were the bed of everything, and I'd never seen or felt songs do that … sometimes the police would plead and say, 'Please stop singing.' And you would just know that your word was being heard, and you felt joy. There is a way in which those songs kept us from being touched by people who would want us not to be who we were becoming."

We have far to go before racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of discrimination and social injustice are wiped off the planet, so I would disagree with the editor's desire to ban "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" from the public schools. I agree that it should not REPLACE the Star Spangled Banner, and anyone who suggests this should be corrected. The election of Barack Obama moves us in the right direction toward greater understanding and communication among people of different races, but as we have experienced in the past, sometimes we take one step forward and two steps back. At our church, worship and church events offer many opportunities for the ideal proposed by the editor, where people of all ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds "stick together" and "get to know each other" so that "the differences between [us] melt away." But our church has only achieved this diversity during the last half of its 122 years of existence on the Rockaway peninsula.

As much as I love our magnificent church and the beautiful peninsula where we are located, any objective observer can see continuing social inequality and polarization along lines of race and class. There is a west end and an east end, and rarely do the two meet for common purpose (the meeting of Community Board 14 and the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce are among the few exceptions). We have separate transportation systems (the Far Rockaway and Rockaway Park A-train lines), separate precincts, separate representation in the US House of Representatives (Weiner and Meeks), separate representations in the State Assembly (Pheffer and Titus) and separate New York City Council districts. Only one local elected official, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, represents both ends of the peninsula. This system has not served our community well. Yet, as our new Attorney General Eric Holder recently noted, the citizens in our society do not seem to have the courage to oppose the powerful social and political forces that perpetuate such polarization.

Because our church is located in the center of the peninsula, and the creed of the United Church of Christ, our parent body, is one of the most progressive in this country, I sense that our members are uniquely suited to play an important and active role in the quest to improve relationships among people of every race, age, gender, sexual orientation and class, and to erase social injustice wherever it exists. So, we will continue to LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING at First Congregational. Our church is located at 320 Beach 94 Street, just east of the Cross Bay Bridge. We invite ALL to join us in our worship service, every Sunday at 11 a.m.

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