STLT#348, Guide My Feet

Today, gentle readers, I offer you A Tale of Two Liturgical Moments. Because indeed, as our man Charles Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The best of times was when I learned an arrangement of this African American spiritual in my seminary gospel choir; the harmonies were rich, and a tag was added to give it musical interest. We sang this in a chapel service, accompanied by the Psalm from which it is inspired, and a homily from one of our African American students.

Now Psalm 119 is a very long lament to God for mercy. As our writer is seeking protection, so too are they trying to convince God that they are keeping true to the laws and commandments, to show they are worthy of God’s presence through the hardships. So it’s no wonder the enslaved Africans might have heard this psalm and these lines and wanted to ask for the same thing.

The homily talked about hardship in the face of racism, and the prayer that is Guide My Feet was directly connected to the work different groups of people have to do – people of color, to be sustained and keep resisting; whites to do the hard work of dismantling white supremacy from within. It was a powerful moment for me, and it forever changed how I understand this song.

Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race.
Guide my feet while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain! (race in vain!)

Hold my hand while I run this race.
Hold my hand while I run this race.
Hold my hand while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain! (race in vain!)

Stand by me while I run this race.
Stand by me while I run this race.
Stand by me while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain! (race in vain!)

Now the worst of times was recently, as SUUSI, when our morning minister offered a service that was part travelogue, part Odyssey (a review of a minister’s career and lessons learned), and all offensive. Everything that happened in the service used the word “walk” exclusively; first of all, it was a huge problem to use only walking as the means for following a path (our theme was “blessed is the path”) – but more, our intrepid speaker (an older white man) changed the words of an opening reading to include only “we walk this path together” and then had the nerve to change lyrics to songs from other traditions. His homily screamed “walk” to the seemingly intentional exclusion of any other word. By the time he got to the closing, he had chosen to change even THIS song to “guide my feet, while I walk this path.”

That was the moment I could take it no longer and walked out, fuming. Fuming for the excessive ableism, fuming for the lack of context on the songs from other cultures, and fuming for the incredible gall of the man to change these lyrics.

So the moral of the story is this, my friends: use songs like this with extreme care. Be really clear you know how to address the abelist language of “run this race.” Be clear that you can use other verses (especially those we don’t include in our hymnal but exist elsewhere), but be very careful to not change verses if it isn’t your song to change. And definitely offer context and explanation, and don’t use this as a joyful song. It’s a song of pleading and lament and a call for God’s guidance.

And in case you wonder if any of that’s true, I’ll leave you with Bernice Johnson Reagon’s version:

But really. Be careful.

One Comment

  1. I remember a worship service at a chapter meeting that ended with this song. We sang it lustily and happily, and when we were done, the only African American among us (brought in to lead the program) burst into tears and said “That’s not the way to sing it. It should be slow and sad.” So thanks for this reminder. It was one of those “worst of times” moments for me (though I wasn’t the worship leader, just a witness).

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