All God’s Critters Got a Place in the Choir

mr youse needn’t be so spry
concernin questions arty

each has his tastes but as for i
i likes a certain party

gimme the he-man’s solid bliss
for youse ideas i’ll match youse

a pretty girl who naked is
is worth a million statues

— e.e. cummings

As I’ve mentioned here before, I have sung in the choir at our church ever since Elizabeth was born in 1980. Through the years, I have often wondered about the expression “preaching to the choir.” The words seem to suggest that choir members are likely to be the truest of true believers and the most pious folks in the congregation.

That hasn’t been my experience.

For example, several years ago all of the U.C.C. churches in the area got together to hold a combined service at Merrill Auditorium in Portland City Hall. In the combined choir seated on the stage there were more than 100 singers. In the tenor section, I was surrounded by singers from other churches. I didn’t know any of them.

The service itself was not exactly my cup of tea and included things to which I have trouble relating. It began with what was called “liturgical dance.” Please believe me when I say that I am a hopeless philistine when it comes to dance of any kind. Yet in retrospect I have to admit that the dance was the highpoint of the morning.

The fellow sitting next to me seemed to find the dance riveting, and he followed one dancer in particular. The dance went on and on, and my mind began to wander. Soon I was wondering why the hell I’d ever gotten involved in such New Age hokum.

As the dance finally neared its conclusion, my neighbor leaned toward me just a little. He continued to watch the dancer and, without moving his lips, said sotto voce, “She has a nice ass…”

He was right, of course. About some things guys are never wrong.

So maybe I’m not the only one who joined the choir because it’s too hard to sit through church without something to do.

Riding with Ghosts on the El

I belong to a Congregational Church that is associated with the United Church of Christ. The U.C.C. is one of those liberal, mainline Protestant denominations for which many evangelicals feel seething contempt. The U.C.C. is different things to different people, however, and operates without a hierarchy of any kind. The differences between congregations can be enormous.

UCC LogoHere in New England, most U.C.C. churches began life as Congregational churches. Some of the congregations are centuries old. Each individual congregation voted on whether to join the U.C.C. when it was forming in the 1950s. As far as I understand the evangelical position, the chief sins of churches like mine are (1) the great majority of us are not biblical literalists and (2) our doors are open to everyone.

If that sounds easy, be assured that it is not. Opening the doors to everyone just about guarantees that you will meet people with whom you disagree, sometimes people whom you dislike. If you harbor prejudices of any kind (race, ethnicity, creed, gender, age, sexual orientation, political persuasion—you know the list) a church like mine will challenge you.

But each U.C.C. church is in some ways unique. Right now, my church is focused on inclusiveness and community outreach and service. Other U.C.C. churches have their own ideas. Some are so different from mine that members of hierarchical denominations have trouble understanding what the U.C.C. really is at its core.

I’ve been thinking about these these things because the U.C.C. has been in the news recently. The Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, of Trinity U.C.C. in Chicago, has been a thorn in Barack Obama’s side as elements of the radical religious right and the progressive secular left joined hands briefly to condemn Rev. Wright and, by association, his former parishioner Sen. Obama. The whole business was so unsavory that, by supreme irony, it proved Rev. Wright’s point: racism is alive and well in this country, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

Somehow it’s harder to talk about than in the salad days of the civil rights movement. Well-intentioned people of all persuasions like to believe that the era of racism is behind us, and it’s true that many battles have been won. But the ghosts of America’s past remain.

I suspect that most of us know more about these ghosts than we like to admit, but I’ll speak only for myself. I grew up in an all-white town in the whitest state in the nation and went to an overwhelmingly white college. I was a passionate supporter of the civil rights movement, but there wasn’t much going on in Maine.

After college I spent four years in the military where I finally had the opportunity to put my convictions about racial equality into practice, and I did well. Some of my supervisors were white and some were black. The respect I afforded each of them varied, but not along racial lines. When I left the military in 1973, my credentials as a person free of racism were impeccable.

Ghosts, however, are by definition elusive. When they appear, it is impossible not to be surprised. And so it was for me riding the El in Chicago one day in the summer of 1976 when I looked around and suddenly realized that mine was the only white face on the train.

The stab of fear I felt in my gut was irrational, unwarranted, and somehow overpowering.

At one level I understood that everyone on that train was, like me, just trying to get somewhere. And yet. And yet. They were all black. All of them.

The ghosts had taken hold of me, and I was afraid. The received wisdom of my all-white boyhood (“Eeny, meeny, miney, mo…catch a n****r by the toe…”) contained virulent racism that had waited patiently for decades to show itself. My palms were sweating, my heart was pounding, and I sat on the train shaking with fear and humiliation. My wild emotional turmoil soon coalesced into shame, however, as I realized that for years I had talked one set of values and lived another.

When I got off the train, I began the real work of freeing myself from racism. I’ve come a long way since 1976, far enough in fact that I will never again make the easy claim that I have left behind every trace of that old received wisdom.

My U.C.C. church is almost exclusively white. Rev. Wright’s is almost exclusively black. Our shared motto and goal, “That They May All Be One,” remains within our reach but somehow just beyond our grasp.