Lift Every Voice and Sing!

Cynthia Briggs Kittredge (@cbkittredge) is the 8th Dean and President of Seminary of the Southwest and professor of New Testament.  Dean Kittredge holds degrees from Williams College and Harvard Divinity School.  

In 2002 I took a sabbatical in South Africa where I lectured in Pietermaritzburg and in Cape Town. On my last Sunday I decided to go to church in a prosperous neighborhood of Capetown. I had heard that one of the priests was leaving; it would be her last Sunday and she was a friend of my friend, Beverly. Wilma Jakobsen was a chaplain at the University and she was leaving South Africa, her homeland, to go to work in Los Angeles where she had spent time as a seminary student.

I had been immersed in the culture and had tried to teach among those to whom I was strange. I was tasting everywhere the hope in the midst of fear and alongside the challenges of the new political arrangement. It had been a long time, and I was tired from trying to understand a new place. When I walked into the church, the choir was practicing, and the song they were singing was “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Hearing that music and those words, I was filled with happiness,

“Lift every voice and sing, til earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty. Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”

It was beautiful; it was familiar; it summed up all that I had seen and heard in my time in the university and in the townships, in the mountains, on the coast of the Indian Ocean. It spoke of home, the Cathedral in Boston where we used to sing it, Christ Chapel, and at Church of the Good Shepherd. I was humming now, but I couldn’t wait to belt it out during the processional. The church filled. When the hymn began, I sang at the top of my voice, and soon I noticed. The only ones who were singing were the choir, me, and Wilma – the congregation didn’t know it. Wilma had chosen it for her send-off – it was not a South African song. Then I realized – it’s an American song. It is written about American experience, and it’s my song. It’s my history. I’d borrowed the song from my black sisters and brothers throughout my church going life, so gratefully, but now far from home, it became mine in a new way.

It was a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. It was a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Even if my biological ancestors were not slaves, this was the story of American history that I shared to the bottom of my shoes. It was about slavery and bondage. The song spoke of leaving a foreign land and coming home, being brought by God through water and tears and blood. It was about wandering the wilderness and overcoming obstacles - it was about freedom. Freedom in Christ, deliverance, redemption.

How divided and how broken have we been in this American country of ours, how much sin has kept us from living the gospel of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. How much sin has kept separate my story from your story and set us apart from each other. Sin made Israel fail and fail again, but always God was there when they looked to God, when they sought God, God was there to forgive. And how God makes a way when there is no way. How the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. How the lame man will leap like a hart and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy! On this MLK Day may we belt out our American song.