Back in the late 70’s, I spent a year scratching out a living in the Oakland Flats, drinking Anchor Steam and drinking in Tower of Power and the Staples Singers at the Coliseum. Now and then I’d head over to the Fillmore or Golden Gate Park for a special concert, but just as often I’d show up at Bethlehem Lutheran Church for a different sort of music.
Bethlehem was a Black congregation. Its vibrant, socially responsive, let’s-liberate-some-theology members coexisted (sometimes uneasily) with those grounded in a more traditional understanding of the faith, but when they joined together for worship, what transpired certainly didn’t resemble the staid services I grew up with in my little corner of Methodist Iowa.
Will Herzfeld, pastor at the time, could preach as though possessed. He often fell into the rhythms of call-and-response that can drag a “Hallelujah”, or “Preach it, brother” out of the most self-conscious pew-sitter. As a young pastor, Herzfeld helped found a chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Alabama and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. His irrepressible personality and unshakable convictions were embodied in a congregation which insisted on wrapping you in its arms regardless of your race. At Bethlehem, Sunday truly was the beginning of the week. Everyone rolled for days on the power of the spirit embodied in the music and words of worship.
I liked the congregation because it was familiar. I’d just returned to the States after years of working in West Africa, and I missed it terribly. Bethlehem eased my transition back into American culture, and gave me a place to feel at home.
It was at Bethlehem I first heard the great hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and that’s where I first sang it. At the time it was considered a bit “edgy”, associated with the Black Power movement and suspect theologies. Today, it’s gone respectable again, and can be found in most “mainline” hymnals. But it’s rooted in the Black community, and will be sung in a multitude of Black congregations around the country this week, even though it’s a song which can – and should – be claimed by the whole world.
Lift Every Voice and Sing was written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. The lyrics are strong and moving and the music, written by his brother John in 1905, is a perfect fit. There simply isn’t anything in the hymnals I find more inspiring. It has given me chills and brought me to tears, particularly when it is sung as it ought to be sung – by people who know what it means to journey.
There are many versions of the song. This video is of R&B singer Kim Weston, performing Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing in front of 100,000 people at Wattstax-a festival at the Los Angeles Coliseum on August 20, 1972. The event was organized by the Memphis Stax label to commemorate the 7th anniversary of the Watts riots. I couldn’t find a complete video version of the song, but no matter. You’ll get the feel.
It is critical to place Weston’s performance in its historical context – it was, after all, 36 years ago, and the level of militance was far higher. Even today, knowing the song has been called the “Black National Anthem” offends some people, but my Black friends who love it intend it to be a song for all people, not a Black manifesto. If you have difficulty moving beyond the historical/cultural context, the complete text and music have been combined in this utterly beautiful rendition which is worth hearing for its own sake. Anywhere there are people who know struggle, any time there is a community which needs to be encouraged and refreshed, the song is appropriate.
We’ve come so far as a nation, and as communities of people long separated by prejudice and fear. The song, now 108 years old, was written for us all. Perhaps our journey has brought us to a time when all can sing it with hope and joy overflowing. Imagine how proud James Weldon Johnson, and his brother John, would be.
Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.