'Take a song with you on the journey'

In 2000, I received and accepted a job offer to become an associate pastor at the International Protestant Church of Zurich in Switzerland. However, due to delays in paperwork, it wasn’t until early 2001 that my wife and I could move overseas. At the airport, before we flew to a foreign land as newlyweds, my father — an ordained minister — wanted to pray with us. He prayed as we all held hands — my wife, me, my father and my mother. 23 years later, it wasn’t the prayer itself that stood out to me. It was what my father said to us after the prayer: “Take a song with you on the journey.”

That phrase still reverberates in my soul. Yes, I grew up in a musical family. Yes, I was a music major as an undergraduate. Yet, the resonance of that statement goes deeper than those things: Song is food for my soul. W.E.B. Dubois presents this notion implicitly by using epigraphic musical refrains of the Spirituals at the beginning of each chapter in his 1906 book “The Soul of Black Folks.” In that book, he states that African peoples brought the “gift of story and song” to the Americas. My father also reminded us to bring that gift with us to a strange land.

There is a certain kind of power in song that is not based on the quality of your singing voice but on the fact that you actually sing. As the poet Paul Dunbar put it, “I sing my song and all is well.” Even in the early church, they believed this as is implied in an old adage: “He who sings prays twice.” In their book “A Song to Sing, A Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice,” Don Saliers and his daughter Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls band wrote, “Without songs to sing, life would be diminished.” To sing is to live and not to sing is to die.

There is a striking example of this that I share in my sermons from time to time. During the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, there was a lot of crying, screaming, moaning and groaning on the streets, but there was also lots of singing. In one case, Ena Zizi, a 70-year-old woman, had been buried for a week in earthquake rubble that was at least three stories high. She was seriously dehydrated and had a broken leg and a dislocated hip, but that did not stop her. When they pulled her out of the rubble, she didn’t ask about the latest social media X wars. When they pulled her out of the rubble, she didn’t ask how many unread emails she had. When they pulled her out of the rubble, she didn’t ask whether her rescuer was Republican or Democrat. When they pulled her out of the rubble, Ena began to sing. Her body was worn and her throat was weary but life was singing. Her song amid the rubble was a melodic refusal to be stopped.

So as we come to the end of this academic year, and as you look toward the summer and beyond, take a song with you on the journey. It is a gift for your soul.

I leave you with the poem “The Gift to Sing” by the Harlem Renaissance genius James Weldon Johnson:

“Sometimes the mist overhangs my path / And blackening clouds about me cling; / But, oh, I have a magic way / To turn the gloom to cheerful day — I softly sing.

And if the way grows darker still, / Shadowed by Sorrow’s somber wing, / With glad defiance in my throat, / I pierce the darkness with a note, / And sing, and sing.

I brood not over the broken past, / Nor dread whatever time may bring; / No nights are dark, no days are long, / While in my heart there swells a song, / And I can sing.”

The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.


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