Following in the footsteps of my maternal grandmother, a life-long church organist, I have been a church musician since age 15, Music Director of the Park Slope United Methodist Church since 1988, and a hymn enthusiast my whole life, promoting hymn-sermons, hymn-dramas, and hymn sings. For a number of years, I was a columnist for The Progressive Christian magazine, writing hymn meditations and prayers. I am also the author of four books about literature (Mark Twain, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes) and five books on social justice issues (feminism, nonviolence, anti-death penalty). I maintain a blog, Activists With Attitude, about women’s radical use of nonviolent action for peace and justice. I’m a card-carrying member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada and the NYC chapter of the American Guild of Organists. For more, go to www.PamMcAllisterAuthor.
What’s an Activist Like Me Doing With a Blog Like This?
“For a good hymn, call Pam!” That’s what my college friends teasingly threatened to write on the bathroom walls of the Student Union. I was a hymn-enthusiast. Chosen to be campus organist for chapel services at Lycoming College, I had been employed as a church musician since age fifteen.
A good part of my faith journey was tactile: it was my feet playing the pedals, heel-toe-heel-toe; left hand stretching into sure octaves; right hand, fingers flying or landing solid chords. I walked around campus wearing tie dye T-shirts with flowers braided into my long hair, edited a local peace movement newsletter, was passionate about feminism, and studied to Iron Butterfly and The Doors. But it was the hymns of my faith that helped me navigate the joys and sorrows of life.
Now, so many years later, hymns are the songs intimately tied to many of my most intense life experiences.
“HOW GREAT THOU ART” takes me back to the memorial service in the college chapel packed with tearful, bewildered students after a classmate committed suicide.
“O HOLY NIGHT” will always be my mother playing the piano on Christmas Eve and all of us gathered around, singing together — all three verses, always.
“DAY IS DYING IN THE WEST” is my Aunt Hazel, with her bright lipstick, singing in a glorious, clear voice at a prayer service during a roaring thunderstorm in a migrant camp. The weary workers, calmed, listened and murmured “Amen!” and “Yes, Lord.”
“SPIRIT OF THE LIVING GOD” is Rev. Connie Baugh, founding pastor of The Church of Gethsemane (Presbyterian USA) in Brooklyn, brassy and brave, singing with her eyes closed, “fall afresh on me,” the sunlight streaming through stained glass.
“IN THE GARDEN” is old Mr. Miner, with skin like dark chocolate and a lifetime of pain, singing in molto adagio tempo, “I come [long pause] to the garden [another long pause] alone…” If there was a dry eye in the congregation, I didn’t see it.
“WADE IN THE WATER” is, for me, the congregation at the Park Slope United Methodist Church gathering at the front of the sanctuary for a baptism, with lively Sunday School children tipping rain sticks on cue, vying with each other for a better view of the baby in Rev. Herb’s arms.
When my sister Anita lay dying at age fifty-eight, friends and family gathered around her hospice bed. For hours we sang her favorite Motown songs and pop tunes, imitated Johnny Mathis singing “Misty” and Eddie Fisher’s “Dungaree Doll.” We also sang “SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER” and “ABIDE WITH ME.”
Later, at my sister’s graveside, Uncle Carl led our weeping circle of family and friends in “FOR THE BEAUTY OF THE EARTH” — the common language of comfort that stretched across the generations, a shared song of thanks at our time of sorrow. The old familiar words seemed to strengthen us, even as our voices faltered.
So, friends, gather around, and I will tell you stories behind the hymns I love so much or suggest a verse on which to meditate. Welcome to the journey.