STJ#1001, Breaths

You could call this one “How Is This My Life?” or maybe “God Bless the Revolution.”… and you’d certainly use the hashtag #MyUnion. But I think we’ll call this one “Our Rock Stars Are Not Your Rock Stars.”

Now the rock star in question is not composer Ysaye Barnwell, although she is a rock star, and I’ll talk more about her when we get to We Are… on January 10th. No, the rock stars in question right now are feminist theologians Bev Harrison and Carter Heyward.

One of the advantages of going to Union Theological Seminary is that we had the opportunity to meet some amazing people in our field, and I had a lot of “how is this my life” moments when sitting in a living room with Harry Belafonte, or singing from the same hymnal with former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, or catching a glimpse of Mos Def in the hall as he heads to sit in on a class with Cornel West.

Such is the case on one beautiful, bittersweet afternoon, when Union held a memorial service for Bev Harrison, who had been a professor at Union and made major strides in the field of Christian feminist ethics. I never met her, but the stories being told at the service made me wish I had known her, because she seemed to be loving, gregarious, expansive, and always willing to challenge the status quo. In one of the reflections about her life, someone shared her words for blessing the food:

Some have food.
Some have none.
God bless the revolution.

It was a powerful experience learning about her life and her work. And then… the seminary choir, of which I was a part, got up to sing the second of two songs we had prepared for the service; I don’t remember the first, but the second was Breaths. I was honored to sing one of the lead parts with my dear friend Lindsey Turner, with the rest of the choir backing us up with the deep, pulsing rhythms that keep time and move the song along in rich harmonies.

When Lindsey and I walked to our places, we realized we were right in front of Bev’s partner, Carter Heyward. For those who don’t know, Heyward is a lesbian feminist theologian; in 1974, she was one of the Philadelphia Eleven, eleven women whose ordinations eventually paved the way for the recognition of women as priests in the Episcopal Church in 1976. Her life and her work is groundbreaking.

Yes. We were being asked to sing to Carter Heyward. This was like being asked to sing to Michelle Obama, or Madonna, or Oprah Winfrey – someone of that magnitude. In those first moments I felt a combination of terror and excitement and amazement.

Our rock stars are not your rock stars.

Of course, we pulled it together quickly, recognized our role as pastoral, and sang this song to Carter, who is now a friend on Facebook. Lindsey and I found the healing pulse of the music and breathed into the healing lyrics, evoking the ancestors, and in particular the loving presence of Bev.

This song… this beautiful song, now graces our hymnal.

Listen more often to things than to beings,
listen more often to things than to beings,
‘tis the Ancestor’s breath when the fire’s voice is heard,
‘tis the Ancestor’s breath in the voice of the waters.
Zah Whsshh Aahh Whsshh

Those who have died have never, never left.
The dead are not under the earth.
They are in the rustling trees,
they are in the groaning woods,
they are in the crying grass,
they are in the moaning rocks.
The dead are not under the earth.


Those who have died have never, never left.
The dead have a pact with the living.
They are in the woman’s breast,
they are in the wailing child,
they are with us in our homes,
they are with us in this crowd.
The dead have a pact with the living.


Now I can’t go without saying a thing or two about the piece as it appears in STJ:

Thing one: YAY! It’s an amazing song, easy to sing, written by a beloved hero of mine and many others. The lyrics, based on a piece by Senegalese poet Birago Diop, are as close to my theology of the afterlife as you can get without me having written them myself.

Thing two: Part of the magic of this song is the vocal orchestra that weaves together rhythm and harmony in a unique but utterly singable fashion; and while I applaud the attempt at a piano arrangement, the results tend to be – at least in my experience – less than the rich, rhythmic breaths Barnwell’s song evokes.

And still. I am glad it is here, in our hymnal, bringing that healing, pulsing breath of life and afterlife together.

One response to “STJ#1001, Breaths”

  1. […] felt so holy and warm. And in that first year, we sang amazing, life-affirming songs, from “Breaths” to Margie Adam’s “Beautiful Soul” and Holly Near’s “Great […]

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