Photo: The Lee Heights Community Church gospel choir. Photo provided by the author
This article comes from the July issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “Music and worship.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.
As a young person growing up at Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland, I was in awe of the gospel choir led by Brother Laverne Rawls. On any given Sunday, the choir marched into the sanctuary, each person donned in a blue choir robe. That choir was my introduction to music in the church, specifically gospel music.
I remember the song “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” which the choir bellowed out with such spirited purpose and passion that I saw it as more than just a song but an anthem or mantra to any particular personal experience.
We’ve come this far by faith
Leaning on the Lord
Trusting in his holy Word
He never failed me yet
Oh, can’t turn around
We’ve come this far by faith
(lyrics from Carlton Pearson)
I couldn’t help but believe the reason this song was so heartfelt and memorable was because it had a special meaning. That meaning speaks of the humility of a congregation passionate about its calling to serve the community God called them to be planted and flourish. From the 1960s through the 1980s, God called this congregation to do something the world thought could not be done, which was to test the waters of diversity and inclusivity. These waters included racial, socioeconomic, cultural, theological and religious upbringing.
These words have captured the formation of my faith and given me an image of growth and development. Through this song, I have been able to identify with 1 Peter 1:8: “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”
This joy has allowed me to embrace the ministry of music as an integral part of how I worship God and Jesus Christ. Throughout my faith walk, I realize I have accepted the role of music in the formation of my faith and in telling my story. I have perceived music as more than just sounds or noise to occupy my space; rather, music has been a part of my daily worship of God. The words of various lyrics and the songs of contemporary psalmists have afforded music a space in my spirit to serve as a daily ministry.
Music took on various roles for me as a young woman growing into my faith. Initially, music allowed me the opportunity to engage in the history of my culture while learning more about “who I am.” The African-American National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” encouraged this African-American female to realize her worth and embrace the Spirit of God as the hope for her future. Words in this song—such as “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” (James Weldon Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson)—prompted a personal vision that includes a desire to work for personal peace and understanding God’s justice as a part of my own ministry.
As pastor of a predominantly African-American Mennonite church, I have been part of a congregation and Christian fellowship that embraces it’s African-American culture and denominational ties with Mennonite Church USA through the infusion of hymns and congregational songs.
On any given Sunday, you will find hymns that reflect our history with the Mennonite church and congregational songs that reflect our individuality as a church that embraces our cultural history and background. Through the hymns and our choirs, I have been able to experience avenues of my faith that God has opened up in unique ways to enrich my personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ. Freedom songs, Black gospel music, instrumental music and hymns have found their way into my musical ministry and enriched my worship and understanding of the Scriptures.
Each Sunday as I enter worship along with other members of the faith, I find value in the marriage of music and worship.
The ministry of music serves as another source of interpreting the Word of God. It provides an avenue to offer praises to God and helps fortify my testimony and witness. Musical worship helps me embrace the connection between the holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit. The ministry of song and other forms of musical interpretation has afforded me the opportunity to contemporize my religious experience because it helps connect me with the Scriptures without the restraints and constraints of organized religion.
Vikki Pruitte-Sorrells is pastor of Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland.
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