The songs that made the church a home
In late 2020, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops—a body whose statements I tend to ignore and often actively avoid—released a document on the use of music during Mass. the fact that “songs are among the most important forces in shaping – or distorting – the religious and theological sensibilities of the faithful”, compiled a list of songs that should no longer be used during worship.
One of the offensive songs was “Let Us Break Bread Together,” a spiritual chant often sung at communion time in black churches. It has a simple, elaborate, major-key melody and corresponding alternate lyrics:
The committee’s objection to the humble song was that it did not express that most mysterious and old-fashioned Catholic belief – that after the priest consecrates the bread and wine, they are no more at all, in their substance, food and drink, but the true body and blood of Christ. “Let Us Break Bread Together” is only about “bread”, and later “wine”, but never about this esoteric transformation. Therefore, the bishops said that he must disappear.
It was an obtuse, unpoetic diktat, a showy way to miss the fact that the story of a song – its use over time, by real people, inspired by the demands of ritual and action – can illuminate its meaning more than mere words ever could. But my irritation at the bishops’ interference was personal, I admit. “Let Us Break Bread Together” was a staple of my childhood. I remember hearing him play at Saint-Benoît l’Africain, the black parish in which I was baptized. I sat listening as the adults walked up the aisle to receive the sacrament, keeping my eyes closed and marveling at how the sun, even through the stained glass windows of the church, could warm my face and redden the inside of my eyelids. It’s the rare song that I feel the effect on my body, via memory, as soon as it starts playing.
“Let Us Break Bread Together” is hymn #135 in “Lead Me, Guide Me,” the first hymn ever commissioned specifically for use by African-American Catholics. The book (it’s on my desk now, as I write) was published in 1987, the year before my family moved from New York to Chicago, that great center of black Catholicism, where my father had got a job as music director at St Benoît. I was three years old; we would live in Chicago until I was nine. Our copy of the anthem – it must be from the very first printing – was still on a table or shelf at eye level in our apartment. On Saturday nights Dad would open it to the keys and I would sit and listen to him move a song past its faintest outline and into its rightful place as something soulful and embellished. At the time, the pages of the book were crisp white and smelled like new glue. Now they’re brown around the edges and carry a kind of soft, mossy funk. The cover is red and black with a vaguely African-inspired pattern. The title is all caps, in a lime green. Red, black and green: the colors of the Pan-African flag, created and popularized by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association.
I think of “Lead Me, Guide Me” as one of the most resplendent flowerings of the Second Vatican Council, with its imperative for the Church to move beyond a Eurocentric aesthetic model and begin to embrace the many styles and languages inherent in a worldwide faith. . Because of the shape of black Christianity in the United States—largely Protestant, dominated by large middle-class denominations like the African Methodist Episcopal Church and working-class black Baptists like my parents—the first Catholic hymn black was necessarily eclectic and ecumenical. “Lead Me, Guide Me” brought together spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with high church Protestant hymns like “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” and outspoken, racial pride songs like James Weldon Johnson “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, often referred to as the Black national anthem.
I remember singing these songs, very close to my mother’s hip, during church. The power of the anthem – the reason for its stubborn adherence in my mind – lay, strangely, in its mundane usefulness. Politics came later. The only idea was to get through the song. My mother moved her pointer finger noiselessly across her pages, scanning the lyrics as we sang, occasionally patting my back and raising an eyebrow if she couldn’t make out my voice. Audibility was paramount. You sang to be heard. “Lift Ev’ry Voice” had practical implications even for a little boy. Before I could read music, I looked at the staff, and the eighth notes with their round black bubbles and elegant flags, looking for signs of legibility and—amazing grace—sometimes finding them. A mark would be a little higher than the previous one and the melody would rise.
One of the great treasures of “Lead Me, Guide Me” is an introductory essay by Sister Thea Bowman, one of the anthem’s architects and a tireless advocate for black Catholics. “God is like fire and balm,” she writes. “For 400 years, African Americans have used symbols and songs to express a faith and a desire too high, too low, too broad, too deep for words, too passionate to be confined by concepts.” It sounds like the sunny black pride that permeated my youth in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and which I still have – in part, I realize now, because of the synthesis achieved by “Lead Me, Guide Me” – seen as deeply attuned to the air of faith. My family, our friends, sang for love, not for law. We got together and broke bread. ♦