The essay from my FaithLink for May 19–Central American Migration–has been posted on the Ministry Matters website: https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9635/the-church-and-central-american-migration
During Lent I’m participating in a study of Can I Get a Witness?: Thirteen Peacemakers, Community-Builders, and Agitators for Faith and Justice, created through the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia and edited by Shea Tuttle, Charles Marsh, and Daniel Rhodes. Released last week, the book presents the stories of thirteen pioneers for social justice who engaged in peaceful protest and gave voice to the marginalized, working courageously out of their religious convictions to transform American culture.
These stories of social activists, such as Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day, and William Stringfellow, shed light on the spiritual motivation for their work for justice. The first chapter is about Cesar Chavez, the organizer of “the first farm-worker union in a struggle for justice that took on the industry of agribusiness.” Daniel Rhodes writes, “Chavez always understood the movement to be about more than wages or contracts; it was a spiritual campaign. For him, the work of the union was woven inextricably in a fabric of religious significance. Jesus was with them, and in their struggle and sacrifices they were a part of his kingdom, his people. It was nearly sacramental–eucharistic.”
Chavez’s story, as well as the others in Can I Get a Witness?, in of particular interest to me because I’m collaborating on a book with and about Noel Paul Stookey–the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary, a singer-songwriter and activist whose faith and social justice commitment have be integrated both in his work with the trio and in his career as a solo artist. I share stories of Chavez’s connection with the trio.
In the 1960s Chavez and his co-leader in the United Farm Workers (UFW) organized a national boycott of grapes to draw attention to the exploitation of farm workers by mega-farm corporations. Sympathetic to the cause, the trio was invited to perform in a Carnegie Hall concert to support the UFW. Noel and Peter write, “Milton Glaser, the internationally acclaimed graphic designer who . . . created all of the graphics for our record albums, stationery, and many other projects, asked his colleague, Paul Davis, . . . to create the now famous image of a young Hispanic boy that was featured in the poster for the concert” . You can view the poster “Viva Chavez, viva la causa, viva la huelga” on the website of the Library of Congress.
Later, Chavez was among the people who invited Peter, Paul, and Mary to join in Survival Sunday, a 1978 concert in the Hollywood Bowl to protest the start up of a power plant in Northern California, built next to the San Andreas earthquake fault.
In 1997 the trio’s manager Martha Hertzberg called on them to join in efforts in Watsonville, CA, to organize strawberry workers, whose health was being affected by pesticides, who were having to work in fields that lacked potable water and toilet facilities, and who were greatly underpaid. She partnered with Arturo Rodriguez, Chavez’s son-in-law, to organize a benefit concert and a trip to the strawberry fields of Watsonville to increase public awareness of the situation . They sang Woody Guthrie’s song “Deportee” about migrant workers .
Peter and Noel wrote, “Seldom had an audience touched us so deeply. In some heart-to-heart exchanges with the United Farm Workers’ leaders, we found out what you cannot know from the printed page or from secondhand descriptions: Theirs was a struggle for survival under the constant shadow of illness, hunger, and possible death due to horrific working conditions, virtually no health services, and miserably low pay.” They noted that efforts to improve conditions for the workers were “largely successful”: “It was the legacy of Cesar Chavez, who changed the consciousness of American about some of our most forgotten and cruelly exploited workers. Woody Guthrie spoke of these workers in the lyrics of ‘Pastures of Plenty’: ‘Pull beets from your ground, cut grapes from your vine, to set on your table that bright, sparkling wine.’ In Watsonville, we had come full circle from the ’60s to the ’90s. The struggle for fairness and justice for the poor was, is, and, alas, will continue to be ongoing” 
 Peter, Paul, and Mary: Fifty Years of Music and Life.
 Peter, Paul, and Mary: Fifty Years of Music and Life.
 This version from the PBS Lifelines special includes Tom Paxton.
 Peter, Paul, and Mary: Fifty Years of Music and Life.
I’ve put together some songs for my UM sisters and brothers who are in pain, shock, grief, anger, and dismay after General Conference. I’ve seen links you’ve posted to help you deal with the complex emotional impact of what we have witnessed this week. Then I’ve posted some of my own. These are not one-size-fits-all songs, but I hope that you’ll find something here to that suits the place where you find yourself.
These three posted by friends give a sample of the emotional roller coaster that progressives and centrists have been on this week.
Kathy Mattea’s Mercy Now , written by Mary Gauthier, announces that the church could use “a little mercy now.”
Let off some steam by singing Jigsaw’s Sky High to General Conference: Our love had wings to fly / We could have touched the sky / You’ve blown it all sky high/
Hear the comfort from Norm Lewis singing Stephen Sondheim’s No One Is Alone: Someone is on your side / No one is alone.
So those are the links from some of you, and these are the ones sounding through my head:
Let It Fall by Over the Rhine:
When you’re down so low
You feel the imprint of the ground
Find comfort in Carrie Newcomer’s Sanctuary
Will you be my refuge
My haven in the storm,
Will you keep the embers warm
When my fire’s all but gone
And find courage in her You Can Do This Hard Thing.
Here are two songs that remind us of the struggle to honor the presence and the gifts of LGBTQIA people in our society and in our church. I know that many of you have been immersed in Holly Near’s Singing for Our Lives . (You won’t want to miss the PBS American Masters tonight celebrating Near’s life and work.) You may not know Thea Hopkins’ Jesus on the Wire, which she dedicated to the memory of Matthew Shepard.
I find in Noel Paul Stookey’s One and Many encouragement for an expansive vision of God’s love, one that we need at this time.
We live in the same house, on different floors
I got my window. and you got yours
We’ve each got a door that leads to the hall
But the rooms are so cozy and the door is so small
One FLAME; many candles
One SKY; many stars
One SEA; many rivers
One LOVE…so many hearts
Be it so.
Please share songs that you are listening to.
Yesterday Englewood Review of Books published my review of Somethin’ Special: A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection (Neworld Media, 2018). I’ve also created a video of one of the tracks on the album “There’s Still My Joy.”
Very few pop Christmas albums help us to celebrate incarnation, the central affirmation of Christianity, but I find in Somethin’ Special: A Noel Paul Stookey Holiday Recollection many songs that point in that direction and offer a most moving encouragement to reclaim that connection. This new full-length holiday CD released in early November presents the new, the traditional, and the disquietingly ordinary and says “Look in these stories and in these places. God is right before your eyes.”
Stookey, one third of the iconic folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, took on a solo career as singer/guitarist /songwriter in the early 70s after the group began a seven-year leave of absence from each other. Since reuniting and performing with Peter and Mary until her death in 2009, he has written songs for 21 solo albums and continues to perform solo and with Peter Yarrow in concerts around the country. His songs are not just folk, but eclectic in content and style, and many of them speak of the Divine in metaphorical terms, central of which is Love with a capital L.
“A recollection can be a distant memory – suddenly recalled – or in this instance, a gathering of childhood stories, unique to the holidays,” Stookey states in his liner notes. “Some are highly personal, some are musical remembrances of Christmases in concert with Peter, Paul and Mary, but most of the songs reflect an evolving appreciation of the expression and the reason for the holiday: the birth of Christ.” Truly, he seems to be re-collecting carols, his own compositions (old and new), and others into a new appreciation of meaning of Christmas and the larger holiday season.
Many people want to divide life into the secular and the sacred. It’s a convenient tactic of church folk who protest any mention of social justice in their congregations. “You’re getting too political, pastor. Stick to spiritual things.” This notion gets press every December when some Christians step up on soap boxes about putting Christ back in to Christmas. Similarly the secular notion of Santa Claus usually ignores its lineage to Saint Nicholas, who was born to wealthy parents in the third century in what is now Turkey. His Christian devotion led him to spend his whole inheritance on attention to the poor and defenseless, particularly as a protector of children. His generosity and compassion led to the custom of gift-giving during the holidays.
With this recording Stookey is suggesting compatibility. Why not have both Santa Claus and nativity scenes? There’s a theological reason for having both Santa and Jesus in our year-end celebrations. After all, some scholars say the root of the word religion means to bind together or to connect–a meaning that is ironically obscured in our current cultural, political, and religious divide–and Christmas, more than any other part of the liturgical year, affirms the connection of heaven and earth, divine and human, spirit and matter.
The incarnation is the ultimate reason for rejoining that which has been broken asunder by misguided religiosity. This baby Jesus grew up to be a carpenter and a friend of the marginalized–including prostitutes, tax collectors, women, and those hated Samaritans. He healed the sick, played with children, and hung out with fisher folk. He concerned himself with practical parts of living–meals, friends, health, community, respect for others, shelter, cooperation, love, and bread and wine. Are these things not sacred?
Somethin’ Special celebrates the binding together of what our culture wants to divide into the secular and the sacred. Three of the songs about childhood are Stookey’s own compositions. In “For Christmas” a department store Santa Claus gains a new life after talking with the last child on Christmas Eve. In “Christmas Dinner” an orphan boy of the streets and a woman old enough to be his grandmother share “the happiest Christmas” in town. “Somethin’ Special,” the title song, is a recollection from Stookey’s own childhood when his creative parents gave him “the gift of patience, the gift of faith.” To this listener these reveal the sacred value of love and connection without mention of the baby Jesus.
In Stookey’s treatment of traditional carols, there is new appreciation of the sensory and the material as well as a bit of reframing. The sound of uilleann pipes that open “In the Bleak Midwinter” take us to the cold desolation of Scottish moors and make us wonder about the song’s metaphorical message for times such as these. Stookey adds lines to “Away in a Manger”: “Across a great desert three wise men they came / Seeking a king though they knew not his name / A heavenly light, bright shining and blest / Had led to the stable where Jesus did rest.” How often have I been too literal minded to see these visitors from the East as representative of those who know not Jesus’ name but are drawn to this sacred baby born in the most earthy of places, an animal stall? Another new verse shows forth the sacredness of the most ordinary acts in a household–comforting children, praying, and keeping watch over a cradle. Who can know the results of these faithful actions?
“Still My Joy”–written by Melissa Manchester, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Matthew Charles Rollings– is the sparking gem of the album, holding in tension joy and grief. I think of the treble range of a piano as silver and the sound of a cello as gold. It is keyboardist Michael McInnis’ genius to bring the two together. The piano is bright and hopeful and underlines the “still my JOY” and the cello is the gravitas, the honest facing of the inevitable losses that come the longer we live. It is the gold of wisdom standing in creative tension with the joy that makes the joy credible. Stookey sings the song with such emotional range, grace, and vulnerability that it becomes an invitation for listeners to enter its safe space to feel and hold together both grief and joy. What a gift!
Richard Rohr writes, “I believe our inability to recognize and love God in what is right in front of us has made us separate religion from our actual lives.” Stookey’s album encourages us to recognize God in what is right in front of us. Without saying so, it is about incarnation, the scandalous notion that in God came in a baby born in a stable and continues to dwell among us mere mortals.
God with us indeed!
photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash
The essay from my FaithLink for Dec. 23rd–“Christmas Music and the Incarnation”—has been posted on the Ministry Matters website: https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/9420/christmas-music-and-the-incarnation
Here are links to the songs mentioned in the essay:
- John McCutcheon’s “Christmas in the Trenches”: https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox?projector=1
- Noel Paul Stookey’s “Christmas Dinner” with claymation video by Will Vinton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93A3DlzpVxM&feature=youtu.be
- Over the Rhine’s “Blood Oranges in the Snow” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOAtUic6LaU
- Indigo Girls’ “Peace Child”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TK4az31Ppd8
- “There’s Still My Joy” written by Melissa Manchester, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Matt Rollings
- Melissa Manchester’s version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mld1l2Yzzj0
- Indigo Girls’ version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwMRtwX3TpQ
- Noel Paul Stookey’s version with video by Jeanne Torrence Finley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7h9Rl_ycRNE&feature=youtu.be