STLT#97, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

This is a beautiful, complex, heart-wrenching lament, which brings up a thousand beautiful, complex, heart-wrenching memories. In fact, I can’t imagine not crying or at least getting a little choked up, even if a memory doesn’t come, simply because the tune and the origin story – again, a song born out of slavery – is so moving and haunting and bypasses the mind and goes directly to the heart. Even writing about it, after having sung it tearfully, I am getting choked up again.

Oh, there are a thousand memories I could share, and a thousand stories I could tell. I don’t want to bypass the import of the song’s origins – the 19th century image that serves today’s post reflects the harsh realities of the slave trade in America.

But I also want to share a particular memory of a time that honors the song, honors an ancient victim of violence, and honors an amazing colleague.

My master’s thesis was about theatricality in worship, and I created a half-hour service through which I explored aspects of theater that inform good worship. The service itself was on a topic that I found myself nearly obsessing over while in seminary, the huge swath of unnamed women in the Bible. Called “Nameless,” I told the stories of eight out of hundreds of women – women without whom a story could not progress but whom the male scribes could not be bothered to name – women like Lot’s wife, Pharaoh’s daughter, Job’s wife, and others. I set it in a cemetery the evoked Arlington, and we had a eulogy and a celebration (click here to read and see the service).

Once the tone was established by Sampson’s first wife (the one before Delilah), the women told their stories and asked “what’s my name?” The last was Jephthah’s daughter – a young woman whose excitement over seeing her father return from war results in her death, simply because Jephthah swore an oath to God that he would sacrifice the first living thing he saw on his farm if he returned victorious from battle. (Seriously – this a thing that’s in the Bible, in Judges 11:34-40.)

While the other women sat back down, the stunning Natalie Renee Perkins, who played Jephthah’s daughter, brought a rose to the grave marker with the ancient woman’s name on it, kneeled down, and began singing this spiritual….

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
a long way from home, a long way from home.

Sometimes I feel like I have no friend,
sometimes I feel like I have no friend,
sometimes I feel like I have no friend,
a long way from home, a long way from home.

Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone,
sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone,
sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone,
a long way from home, a long way from home.

There was not a dry eye in the room.

Not just because Natalie sang it beautifully – which she did.

Not just because we were at a memorial service – which we were.

But because the power of this song to speak for those who are a long way from home – emotionally distanced, kept prisoner, even those murdered out of hate – the power of this song is that it speaks to something within all of us and to the bigger, scary realities out of which this song comes and to which this song belongs.

This is a beautiful, complex, heart-wrenching lament.

One Comment

  1. This was one of the songs we included in our recent “Singing Vespers” gathering on New Year’s night. It was a powerful experience, singing it over and over…

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