2016-06-30
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (RNS) -- At their weekly choir rehearsal, the Messengers of Peace practice what they call "fun" music along with the Lutheran standards of "Lift High the Cross" and "Amazing Grace."

Working through the syncopations, rhythms and languages of African and Spanish hymns, they bring a new tradition to the worship at Peace Lutheran Church every third Sunday: music from around the world.

In fact, "Siyahamba," a South African piece known as "We Are Marching in the Light of God," has become such a favorite that it is no longer sung solely by the choir. Sometimes the congregation sings along, and a bell choir plays it, too.

"This is one you can really just open out," enthused Christine Howlett, a first soprano who travels from Mount Ranier, Md., to sing in the choir. "You don't have to have any reserve. You can sing your heart out."

Global church music -- particularly from Africa, Asia and Latin America -- has trickled down from occasional international Christian gatherings to average worship services across the country. And, in the last decade, publishing houses have issued new hymnals and hymnal supplements for denominations that feature more music from foreign lands. Others have published smaller volumes that highlight global music.

C. Michael Hawn, a church music professor at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is editor of "Halle, Halle: We Sing the World Round." Published last year with singer's and teacher's editions, it includes background and performance tips on three dozen songs.

Hawn said some churches have embraced global music in an effort to be more hospitable to the wide range of people they hope to attract to their weekly worship. Other congregations find they learn about their own faith by worshipping as others do.

"No one culture has the corner on God's revelation," he said. "It's that sense of moving beyond our little view of the world."

Part of the attraction of the music is movement itself -- the irresistible need to mark its rhythms with swaying or toe-tapping. The dozen or so Messengers of Peace, most sitting on high wooden stools and sharing music stands covered with song sheets and hymnals, grin from ear to ear as they sing and tap their thighs or beat the air with their feet, inches from the floor.

"The simplicity of this kind of music is enchanting," Howlett said. Choir director Paul Sticha, who has directed the group since 1982, said it used to focus on American folk music, but has expanded its repertoire to include more songs from across the globe.

"Sometimes I think getting the music from a different culture can really highlight some of the message in the Word," said Sticha, a research psychologist who also conducts the church's three bell choirs.

For example, at the service on the January weekend when the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday was observed, the liturgy featured the words of King's writings and the music of South Africa.

"It was a very moving service," he recalled.

Scott Weidler, associate director for worship and music for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said newer hymnals his denomination has published in cooperation with Augsburg Fortress Publishers have included more global music. "With One Voice," for example, was published in 1995 as a supplement to the Lutheran Book of Worship and includes the Zimbabwean "Come, All You People" and other hymns sung by the Messengers of Peace.

"It's a sampling of music from all around the world as well as some more traditional kinds of things," said Weidler. "Since that time, many, many congregations are, at the very least, dabbling with all sorts of musical styles that they hadn't done in the past."

In addition to denominational hymnals, special collections for international conferences end up reaching down to the congregational level.

The Rev. Clay Morris, liturgical officer of the Episcopal Church, said multilingual hymnals from World Council of Churches gatherings and the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Church have infused some Episcopal congregations with international music.

"Bishops come to that conference and then take the hymnals home and stuff spreads around," Morris said.

Three months out of the year, Hawn leads "global immersion" weekends with congregations, preparing the choirs on Saturday and guiding a special Sunday service using what they've learned. Some older members say the international music reminds them of earlier foreign missions work and young people, who often are learning other languages in school, enjoy applying a global experience to the church setting.

Hawn encourages congregations to let global music be part of regular services, rather than solely at an annual celebration of Pentecost or World Communion Sunday.

"What I think is the norm is when this kind of music is not segmented as a special event but it becomes part of the reservoir from which we draw for all of our liturgical experience," he said. "`Otherwise it becomes a bit of a tokenism."

Hawn makes a point of encouraging people in the congregation for whom English is a second language to use their primary language for a Scripture reading or prayer. Those readers, whose words are translated into English, also may speak a bit about a native song and help "give this music a face."

Clergy and church musicians across the country say the music is welcomed by some members and visitors from a variety of cultures, though some oppose the introduction of nontraditional music or find singing a verse or two in a foreign language difficult. In predominantly white congregations, pastors find the music is a favorable factor for racial and ethnic minorities considering joining their churches.

The Rev. John Wimberly, pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., said his predominantly white congregation has seen an increase in the church's diversity since the choir began performing more works by African and Latin composers as well as Asian hymns.

"Those things ... just attract a different kind of person than if you're doing the white European dead male thing," he said.

The Rev. Kristin Sundquist, assistant to the rector and director of music at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Saratoga, Calif., said her mostly white, wealthy congregation is open to global music in part because the choir presents it as something they enjoy and they can do well.

"Number one, you have to let them know that you enjoy it and it's valid and it's worthwhile," she said. "Number two, you can't do it ... and just bomb."

Hawn said the use of global music also expands notions of how to worship.

"A lot of traditional Western liturgy has tended to focus upon the preached word and music that makes sure that we get across the intellectual point," he said. "I find ... in Africa and Latin America a strong sense of music being used not just to teach us specific theological concepts -- although that may happen -- but to build community."

The cyclical structures of African music offer a contrast to the traditional four-verse Western hymns, said Hawn. Sometimes they help "center" a person for quiet, focused worship, and other times they energize the congregation, he said.

But Hawn said everyone hasn't embraced global music. He's had some people complain about it, saying things like "I think multiculturalism is tearing up our country."

Hawn said he sees his mission as introducing the concept and letting people make up their minds about whether to adapt their congregation's liturgy to the music of the world's churches.

"I think my job is to sow the seed," he said. "I'm not necessarily responsible for what happens to the seed. Some seed grows well and some seed doesn't do so well. You can't take it personally."

But some people -- including the singers in the Messengers of Peace -- don't need any convincing about using the multicultural music. Lore Bergey, a retired elementary school teacher in the Fairfax County, Va., school district, said she'd already been exposed to students speaking 30 different languages in her professional career. She welcomes the diversity in church music as well.

"God is universal," she said. "It's just enriching."



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