What A White Girl Learned From Joining Gospel Choir

There was a freshman whose RA said, “Hey, you should join gospel choir with me.”

And she said, “Sure, why not?”

So what if she didn’t know what gospel music was? So what if she was so white that she had, at times, gotten sunburn in the car on the way to the beach? So what if she came from a church where if people really felt moved by the Spirit they might…sway a little?

So she joined. And there were songs with soul and rhythm, and saxophone solos that were different every time, and cheering and clapping and all manner of carrying on. They’d lead worship at churches where the greeting time lasted fifteen minutes at least and, afterward, eat fried chicken brought in by enthusiastic members who yelled, “Amen” and “Take your time, preacher” during the sermon.

And the freshman would show up on time to rehearsals where everyone else arrived late, and learn by ear instead of using sheet music, and laugh deep and loud and long at her total inability to clap on the offbeat.

Gospel Choir

Do you see her—the white girl in the back row who could barely step back and forth in time at the first rehearsal? The one who never raised her hands in worship, who was constantly on her guard against being emotionally manipulated by a sermon, who hated the song “Undignified” even as a thirteen-year-old at church camp because the story of King David making a fool of himself in worship didn’t seem right.

Do you see her, learning to dance?

But the freshman became a sophomore and started to feel jaded. Are we really saying anything, anything important? Or are we just belting out a few simplistic lines about joy and freedom on a loop until no one really hears them anymore?

Sometimes the choir sang along with the worship team in chapel. That week, the song was “Majesty.” (Not actually an example of gospel music at all, as even the most enthusiastic choir members couldn’t track down a beat lively enough to clap to.)

“Now I’ve found the greatest love of all” and “The greatest love of all is mine” are each fine on their own. But combined together, they don’t quite make sense. Not grammatically, anyway. And it’s emotional, and it’s repetitive, and why do we sing that line over and over again—why do we sing so many of our lines over and over again?

What happened to the old hymns, where the lyrics had deep meaning and you didn’t have to say the same thing twice…or three times, or ten? Does it mean anything, anymore? Are we just showing off the harmonies decorating our empty words?

Is this worship?

And then, in performance, the worship leader read the story of the crucifixion while the choir sang in the background. And as the text and the voice rose to “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the sophomore was no longer singing. She was crying—and she did not want to hear those words and how can it be finished and why did he have to die? Why did he have to die alone?

And it feels like Good Friday, and it feels real.

“Now I’ve found the greatest love of all is mine.”

The gospel choir sang it over and over, until some people stopped hearing it and some people heard it for the first time. And it is worship. It is.

And the sophomore understood in her head what she had felt in her heart freshman year:

Good news is worth repeating.

No, not everyone worships God the way I do. And truth is of God, sure, but so is beauty. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind…not just whichever comes most naturally to you.

We are brothers and sisters, and we are different. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity, just like choirs aren’t made of just sopranos. Because there is beauty in the harmony created by diversity.

And beauty, remember, is of God. Just as much as truth.

The sophomore smiles, because she learned something new about loving God and loving others somewhere in that song between the bridge and the chorus.

And it feels like Easter.

Gospel Choir 3

5 comments

  1. Growing up going to Zulu churches, where there is a lot of really, really beautiful and repetitive music, and then also going to white churches where there isn’t (;D) I’ve always loved gospel-style music, and have tried to explain to other people who don’t why it repeats a lot. So once I asked someone who led worship in a Zulu church how he knew when to stop a song– like, there’s no middle, beginning and end, it just kind of goes. And he said, “Well, the angels in heaven say “Holy, Holy, Holy”. They don’t just say “Holy” once. Because you don’t mean it the first time. And because God is not just “Holy.” So you can’t just say it once. He’s more than that, he’s holy, holy, holy, on and on and on. And so you just sing until the song goes down and down and down inside of you until it’s really inside, and then you stop because you’re done.” And I thought that was a beautiful explanation, which this story reminded me of.

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