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Landscape and Soundscape: Border Crossing through Song

by Michael Hawn


September 16, 2015

Landscape and Soundscape: Border Crossing through Song

Michael Hawn

Similar to our Vocation of Peacemaking series, The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this new series from the BPFNA!

While I certainly travel more than my share, crossing physical boarders is not the subject of this reflection. Most of my vocation centers on bringing the sung witness – the soundscape – of others beyond the United States into our worship landscape in the United States. At first glance, this might seem insignificant or even trivial, especially in light of the suffering and struggle of so many around the world. While I am not suggesting that singing can solve the world’s problems (certainly nothing as banal as the old Coke commercial, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”), I have found that song has the potential to bring the witness of the “other” – strangers, sojourners, marginalized peoples – into to our comfortable landscape. In doing so, we may open our awareness to the gift of the “other” among us and, as stated in Matthew 25, recognize that we have welcomed the “Other” into our midst. A few examples:

Imagine joining a Pakistani Christian in singing a musical setting of Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy) in Urdu (Click here). The otherness of the music, even though “foreign” to our ears, still is a powerful lyrical statement of what it might be like to be a Christian in a cultural context where it is dangerous to express one’s faith. For most of us, we must become vulnerable as we attempt to sing in Urdu – something that middle-class Anglos do not always like to do. Yet, it is in our vulnerability that we may be most receptive to the gift of another cultural context. Even though a Pakistani Christian may not be physically among us, their sung witness through may be voiced in our sacred space.

Imagine dancing an “Alleluia” from Zimbabwe (Click here), a country that has been subjected to greedy, corrupt, and oppressive leadership for over 25 years, where HIV/AIDS touches virtually every extended family unit, where cholera kills thousands, and the migration of people into neighboring countries seeking economic opportunity divides families. Yet, alleluias ring forth in the hope of a God that is stronger than evil. How might this witness challenge our sometimes feeble attempts to express our joy in the midst of comfort? While many of us may not “dance” in church (or any other place, for that matter), might we join our Zimbabwean brothers and sisters in fuller expression of our joy – a complete embodied experience – in solidarity with their hope in the face of adversity?

How might our communion experience be enlarged if the bread and cup were processed to the table with a lively Central American song, “Te Ofrecemos Padre Nuestro” (“Let us offer to our Father”) (Click here). Not only does this song bear witness to the Nicaraguan faith community that gave it breath following the reforms of the Second Vatican Counsel in the 1970s, but it also is a gift to many Protestants who might balance the usual memorial observances of the Lord’s Supper with the joyful thanksgiving of the Eucharist.

Song in the context of worship shapes theology not only by what it says, but also by the soundscape of those who offer these songs as a gift to the 21st century church. One of the steps to meaningful border crossing (and peacemaking) is the understanding that resolution comes through reciprocal experiences among cultures and acknowledgement of the gifts and graces of all. Singing across cultures offers one step on this journey. By welcoming the sung prayers of the stranger in our worship, we open the door to gifts and deeper relationships far greater than we could have imagined. Furthermore, what we sing in worship may be the truest indicator of our faith. As Albert van den Heuvel, a European pastor and ecumenist, said in the early 1960s:

"It is the hymns, repeated over and over again, which form the container of much of our faith. They are probably in our age the only confessional documents which we learn by heart. As such, they have taken the place of our catechisms... There is ample literature about the great formative influence of the hymns of a tradition on its members. Tell me what you sing, and I’ll tell you who you are!"

Does our sung faith indicate that we cross borders? How might our worship soundscape broaden our landscape?

C. Michael Hawn, distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, taught at two Southern Baptist seminaries for fifteen years before coming to SMU in 1992. His primary research is in the area of congregational song with a focus on what Christians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America sing and offer the world church.

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