When I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, I wasn’t surprised by the number of churches. The town I grew up in west of Boston, population about 10,000, had one for every denomination I’d ever heard of at the time (which isn’t as many as I’ve heard of since).
It didn’t surprise me that on the Vineyard there were three Episcopal churches (one summer-only), three Methodist, two Catholic, two Baptist, a couple affiliated with the United Church of Christ, and a few of a more evangelical bent, all for a year-round population of 15,000 or so.
It didn’t even surprise me how much time I, a confirmed (literally — in the Episcopal church my parents belonged to) non-believer, was soon spending in churches, not for worship but for theater rehearsals, chorus rehearsals, meetings, and the occasional lecture or other program.
What surprised me was the church-hopping. I met people who’d gone from, say, Episcopal to Congregational, Baptist to Unitarian and back again, because they liked the new minister or had become disenchanted with the old one. Or they might attend two or three different churches in any given month. Switching denominations was not the big deal I’d assumed it was.
Where I’d come from, the feminist women’s community of Washington, D.C., Christianity was not held in high esteem. As women and especially as lesbians, many of us had had bad experiences with whatever denomination we were born into. We didn’t go church-hopping. We bailed.
Religiosity, of a patriarchal, misogynist kind, was then on the rise in U.S. politics, but I had seen firsthand that there’s more to religion than religiosity. In the antiwar movement, I’d been inspired by and worked alongside people whose work in the world embodied their religious beliefs. The liberation theology coming out of Latin America introduced me to a whole new way of looking at Christianity. I learned how essential churches had been to the rise and success of the civil rights movement. In the 1980s churches in the U.S. and elsewhere played an important role in the sanctuary movement, assisting those fleeing political persecution and civil unrest in Latin America.
In my D.C. days, I participated in many pagan celebrations, some of which were held in Christian parish halls. Secular Jewish feminists organized and invited all comers to community seders. My understanding of the spiritual and respect for the power of ritual kept expanding, all outside the confines of the Christianity I’d grown up with.
That continued once I landed on Martha’s Vineyard. I wanted to keep singing, but singing on the Vineyard mostly happened in churches. I wasn’t up for attending church services every week. I did join the pickup group that performed Messiah every holiday season, and when that evolved into the year-round Island Community Chorus I stuck with it. Much of its repertoire was church-related; I found it easier to sing God the Father stuff when it was in another language. The chorus eventually grew so big that the community part was getting lost for me. After 10 years I left.
Now I sing with the Spirituals Choir of the U.S. Slave Song Project, a much smaller group. Director Jim Thomas has devoted his life to researching the spirituals, songs sung by African slaves in the U.S. from their arrival in 1619 till Emancipation in 1865. We present them wherever we’re invited, in libraries, churches, senior centers, and every July at East Chop lighthouse.
Many spirituals draw their imagery from the King James Version of the Bible. Some have been adopted into the hymnals of various Christian denominations. But as Jim explains, the songs work on at least two levels: one that would seem innocuous to the slave owners and overseers, and one that communicated something else to the slaves.
So last Sunday we were part of the regular Sunday service at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, universally known as “the West Tisbury church” because it’s the only one in the center of town.
The theme of the service was migration, immigration, flight from one place to another. One of the scripture readings was from Ruth (1:6–18), in which Ruth chooses to go with Naomi, her mother-in-law, into Naomi’s land. In the other, from Matthew (25:34–45), Jesus says that whoever aids the stranger, aids him; and whoever turns the stranger away, turns him away.
Our spirituals, sung by people who were torn away from their native lands and treated abominably by those who claimed to be Christian, fit right in. In “We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,” slaves who customarily stood while they served those who sat imagined a better future for themselves. “Great Day” celebrates Emancipation: “This is the day of jubilee / The Lord has set his people free.” So does “Rise, Shine,” sung during the Civil War as the Union army approached and thousands of slaves “self-emancipated” without waiting for official permission.
“Done Made My Vow” was sung by slaves preparing to escape on the Underground Railroad: “Done made my vow to the Lord / That I never will turn back.”
“Fare You Well” was a song of leave-taking, sung by slaves who were sold away from friends and family whom they were unlikely to ever see again.
In her powerful soprano, guest soloist Elizabeth Lyra Ross sang “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me.” When Jesus appears in the spirituals, it usually refers to someone who was a friend to the slaves, who eased their burdens and perhaps helped them escape.
With the congregation we sang “We Shall Overcome,” not a spiritual but a modern song closely associated with the civil rights movement.
You didn’t have to be a Christian or believe in God to feel the power, the connection between those who fled slavery, those currently fleeing war and oppression, and the stories of those doing likewise in the Bible. The songs are not museum pieces, and neither are the stories. They’re being played out today. Are we escaping bondage, and helping others to escape? Are we feeding and clothing the stranger, or are we turning our back?