Jubilee Singers

Are you familiar with the Jubilee Singers out of Fisk University? Many of them were former slaves who were formed into a touring choir. Their repertoire included popular songs of the day as well as the spirituals from their own tradition.

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Ella Shepherd is sitting at the organ.

Their stories were heart-wrenching. We often do not really understand the realities of the harshness of the lives of those who were enslaved–how families were torn apart and what the ramifications were of life as people who had no control over their lives or the lives of their children or grandchildren. Those experiences created generational trauma–and while we may like to think that all this occurred in the distant past, it didn’t.

Our great-great-grandparents knew slaves…or former slaves…or owned slaves…or were slaves. It’s not that far back.

What was life like? Here’s the story of one of the Jubilee Singers (from a book titled “The Story of the Jubilee Singers with Their Songs” by J.B.T. Marsh, published in 1881):

Ella Sheppard was born in Nashville. Her father, while a slave, had hired his own time, and earned enough, in carrying on a livery stable, to buy his freedom, for which he paid $1,800.

His wife was owned by a family living in Mississippi, and soon after Ella’s birth she was taken back to that State. The mother was worked so hard that the baby could have little attention, and nearly died of neglect. When it was fifteen months old the father heard that it was very sick and not likely to live. Going at once to Mississippi he bought his own child for $350 and took it, ill as it was, home with him to Nashville. Afterward he tried to buy his wife, but her master refused to sell her. By and by they were entirely separated from one another. By the usage of slavery she was dead to him, and he married again.

His second wife was also a slave, and he purchased her freedom, after their marriage, for $1,300. Free papers could not be executed without going to a free State. Before it was convenient to make a visit to Ohio for this purpose, he became embarrassed in his business.

Having bought his wife, she was legally his property, and as liable to be seized and sold for his debts as his horses were. He learned one night, through a friend, that some of his creditors were intending to take her for this purpose. Without waiting an hour he hurried to an out-of-the-way railway station in the woods, some miles distant, and placed her on board the midnight train bound for Cincinnati. Soon after, he followed with his child, leaving all the rest of his property to his creditors, and beginning life anew, without a penny of his own, in Cincinnati.

In Cincinnati, Ella attended a colored school, with frequent and sometimes prolonged absences on account of poor health. When twelve or thirteen she began to take lessons in music. But the sudden death of her father by cholera, when she was but fifteen, broke up their home. All his property, of which he had again accumulated a considerable amount, including the piano he had given to Ella, went to pay the costs of unjust law-suits, and she and her stepmother were thrown on their own resources. Often they were in great straits, and more than once Ella went to festivals where her services as a pianist were in demand, but went supperless, because there was nothing in the house to eat.

A friend, who had become acquainted with her musical abilities, offered to give her a thorough course of instruction as a music teacher, with the understanding that she was to repay him from her earnings whenever she was able to. An eminent teacher of Cincinnati was engaged to give her instruction on the piano. She was the only colored pupil, and the conditions on which she was taken were, that the arrangement should be kept secret, and that she should enter the house by the back way, and receive her lessons in a secluded room upstairs, between nine and ten at night.

The failure of her patron very soon broke up these plans. Being under the necessity of earning her own living, she accepted the offer of a school in Gallatin, Tennessee. Although she had thirty-five scholars, the remuneration was so small that she was able to save but six dollars from the term’s work. With this she went to Fisk University, where she was engaged in study, and in work for self-support, for about two years, when she was appointed one of the teachers of instrumental music. She aided in drilling the choir with which Mr. White gave the cantata of “Esther,” and out of which the Jubilee Singers were organized. As the skillful pianist of the company, she has been with it in all its travels.

This is but one story. Multiply it by the thousands of individuals held in slavery…and we can begin to get an understanding of how the gifts, hopes, and dreams of individuals were impacted…and how our country has been impacted…and how important it is to know all of our history.


Half a million…can we wrap our minds around that number?

Military deaths in war (numbers from Wikipedia):
US Civil War (1861-1865) – 214,938
Spanish-American War (1898) – 385
Philippine-American War (1898-1913) – 1,020
World War I (1914-1918) – 53,402
World War II (1941-1945) – 291,557
Korean War (1950-1953) – 33,686
Vietnam War (1955-1975) – 47,424
Gulf War (1990-1991) – 149
Afghanistan War (2001-present) – 1,833
Iraq War (2003-2011) – 3,836

That totals 648,230.

In 80 years of war, America lost 648,230 soldiers. In just over a year of Covid, we have lost 500,000 people.

During many of those years of war, we pulled together as a people in order to do what was needed to keep people safe. During this year of Covid, the simple things that doctors have asked us to do to keep people safe have somehow been seen as infringements on our liberties.

How do we grieve this kind of loss? Both the loss of individuals–fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, children, grandparents–and the loss of our ability to show kindness to each other…to care for each other.

What will it take?

These are people who cannot be replaced. Just as in the wars we have suffered through, we have lost dreamers, inventors, writers, thinkers, musicians… We have lost people who had the ability to help change our world.

So what do we do now?

How do we wrap our minds around this kind of loss?

We’re not through this pandemic yet. Yes, there are things that give us hope, but the doctors and scientists warn us that we still may have dark days ahead.

I understand that we’re tired of restrictions around our gatherings. We’re tired of masks and social distancing. We want to get back to normal.

So do I. But I also don’t want to lose another 500,000 people in this country.

So maybe the best way to wrap our minds around this kind of massive loss is simply to acknowledge it…to hold ourselves accountable for our behaviors…to mourn with those who have lost…and then decide to do what we can to care for our neighbors…to treat them as we would want to be treated.

And for the time being, that means continuing to wear masks…practice social distancing…wash our hands…and recognize that we are all in this together.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee. – John Donne

Transformed to what?

Recently I read this on a FB post: “Over the years our faith community has transformed to a political theology based on Social Justice. It views conservative ideology as evil and all of those who tend to think that way. This is viewed as a moral victory to them.”

I was sorry to read this, because it’s not something I agree with.

I do believe that we have transitioned to a theology that is focused on what happens after we die to a theology that understands that we are called to live justly in this world. We are challenged to live in response to what Jesus said in Matthew 25:

I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me into your home. I needed clothes, and you gave me something to wear. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then the people who have God’s approval will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you or see you thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you as a stranger and take you into our homes or see you in need of clothes and give you something to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“The king will answer them, ‘I can guarantee this truth: Whatever you did for one of my brothers or sisters, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:35-40

To me this isn’t a political theology based on social justice—it’s living out our faith.

I am one of those who probably would be identified as liberal. I do NOT view conservative ideology as evil, nor do I think those who support it are evil. We simply see the world from different perspectives—and we need both of those perspectives. If we only have one or the other, our world becomes unbalanced.

I believe that as a faith community we are moving to a theology and focus on “the conversion of one’s spirit to Jesus Christ”—as this poster desires.

I hope we can make this journey together.

Ashes, ashes…

In a normal year, many of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus would be acknowledging the start of this season of Lent with special services. We would be walking around today with a smudge of ashes on our foreheads.

But this isn’t a normal year.

Covid is still very much a part of our lives. It is still impacting how we live…how we work…how we socialize…and how we worship.

Many of our traditional services–including Ash Wednesday services–have had to be cancelled to try to keep people safe.

But perhaps the difficult times we’re living in can help us understand Ash Wednesday / Lent in a new way. After all, Lent is the 40 days leading up to Easter. Traditionally it’s been a time of fasting…of “giving up” something. The ash smudge is a reminder of our need to repent–a term that more accurately means a “turning away from” or “turning around.” The ashes are also a reminder of our mortality.

And all of that is so true today. We’ve had to “give up” our sense of normality. We’ve definitely been reminded of our mortality, with almost half a million lives lost in the United States alone. We’ve come face-to-face with the inequities in our society.

The question is…what are we going to do about it?

Have these losses caused us to really consider what changes we need to make–both individually and as a society–to help bring about more equitable communities? Have we come to understand that this season calls us to “turn away” from the status quo?

The prayer for today–and this season–can be caught up in these verses from Psalm 51:

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right [or steadfast] spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing [or generous] spirit.

May it be so.

Where are we going?

The second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump is over. He was acquitted by a vote of 57-43, with seven members of the GOP voting to convict him and the rest to acquit.

So now what? Where do we go from here? What do we do?

We remember.

We remember the brave police who fought to protect all the members of Congress–and who have been repaid with a slap in the face when many of those same members (who also voted unanimously to give an award to Officer Goodman for his bravery) did not have the courage to stand against the would-be tyrant who egged the mob on.

We remember the members of the House who voted in support of our democracy, even knowing that they will face electoral challenges for their stance.

We remember the many people of color who for years have faced the kind of hatred and discriminatory acts that this previous administration encouraged–and who persisted.

We remember the example of all those who have resisted tyranny and hatred. They come from many places, many backgrounds, but their courage gives us strength.

We remember that diversity makes us stronger. We learn from each other and we build each other up.

We will weep…we will mourn…and then we will rise up.

We will remember the challenging words of Amanda Gorman at President Biden’s election:

The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light
If only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

We remember…we will vote…and we will persevere.