How Can They Keep From Singing?

I want you to spend a few minutes and listen to some audio links below.

The first is a story I heard tonight on KERA, driving home from the “Second Monday” series at Northaven. (And it led me to the second link when I got inside to my computer…)

It was a “driveway moment” for me, and I found myself sitting in the car until the story ended. And, at one specific moment, I found myself in tears.

It’s a story about some medical professionals, and an experience they had one night, working in a triage hospital, just following the earthquake in Haiti.

Certainly, we never saw the complete horror that these folks saw. But, even on Haiti’s best day, it was always a country hanging by a thread. And during my trips, just walking down the street on Haiti’s best day ever, you’d see children whose playground was a garbage dump; sharing it with feral hogs. You’d see women selling fresh fruits alongside an open sewer. You’d see adults suffering from a lack of even the most basic of medical care.

Even on it’s best day, Haiti was a country that would break your heart.

And yet, there was something about the faith of the people –at least the Haitian Methodists we knew– that might also heal your heart too.

I know that sounds strange. So, maybe the thing to do is listen to the story, and I’ll say more afterwards:

(this is the whole episode, I’m writing tonight about the first story…so you can pause it after, if you like…)

This story is called “Six Months After the Earthquake,” and it was on a program called “The Story.” But, as I understand it, the story originally comes from a program called “Under The Sun.”

Here’s another bit of audio from the “Under the Sun” blog, and more of what the docs/nurses say about their experiences of hearing the Haitians sing, their reaction to it, and how they were changed.

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been six months since the quake. There is a LOT of rebuilding still to do. About two weeks ago, I had coffee with Marji Bishir, and she shared with me some of the pictures she took at the site of the Petit-Guave Eye Clinic. I have to say, I was probably not prepared to see the empty slab where the clinic used to be, even though I knew what had happened there.

As I said above, there is no question that the sights these docs and nurses describe are far worse than anything else I ever saw in Haiti in my five trips. But, I too had a very similar reaction based on a very similar experience.

I will never forget how every time we worshiped at the Methodist Church in Petit-Guave, the people sang from memory…hundreds of them in that church…no hymnals…no bulletin…no song leader…

The sound filled the room. Like the one woman in this story says, you felt like the sound was filling the whole town.

In the midst of lives of abject poverty, in the midst of a rural town, people who had no resources and (what seemed to me) little reason for hope, sang songs about how Jesus loved them.

Their singing helped me to re-understand faith, or perhaps to fully comprehend it for the first time. Maybe ever. It was a shock to realize what it meant to have faith –clearly a deep and abiding faith, a faith that makes you want to SING OUT loudly– even in the midst of a country where, on its best day, life seemed to hang by a thread.

So, off and on these past months, I’ve been listening to some old tapes that I’ve digitized into a CD of the Petit-Guave Methodist Church choir. Somebody gave me a copy, and I’m pretty sure it was because they could tell how moved I had been. Maybe I can post some so all yall can hear it.

There is something about singing.

There is something about doing it –about raising your voice in song– that can drive the darkness away, that can express a joy, a faith, a hope that perhaps nothing else really ever does.

Although it’s not a specifically religious song, when I wrote my song “I Will Sing,” I think I had this kind of thing in mind. (I definitely remember having the people of Petit-Guave and their singing in mind…)

There IS something about singing that drives the doubt and fear away…even in the midst of the poorest country in the western world.

I know that not everybody sings from a religious point of view. Heck, I don’t always sing from an *explicitly* religious point of view.

But whatever our sense of “God” is, there IS something, deep in our DNA, that makes us look heavenward and raise our voices in the toughest of times. We’ve been doing it for millennia. It seems we can’t help but do it. We’re wired for it.

Which reminds me of an old hymn, titled, appropriately enough, “How Can I Keep From Singing?” The hymn is in the “Faith We Sing” book, put out by the United Methodist Church, but it dates to the 1860s, if not before:

“Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul–
How can I keep from singing?”

The great Pete Seeger picked up the song in the last half of the 20th century, and repopularized it for a whole new generation. And, God bless Pete, I love his version. But he took out all the religious language. And I understand why he did it. But there is an added dimension to realizing the original spiritual context of the song, and how it speaks to this very phenomenon that we saw in Haiti.

Lines like this, for example:

“No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?”

Whatever you think of faith in God, whatever you think of Christianity –and, God knows, there are lots of things that could make you wary of both– at the very least I hope you too can stand in awe of this kind of singing faith.

And, at the very best, you might learn the truth that put the shake in the voice of those medical professionals, as they heard Haitians who, in the midst of the greatest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime, sang to a God who loves them.

That was a truth I learned in Haiti too. And I will always thank God, and the people of Haiti, for teaching me.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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