Phil Spencer

This announcement on Black History Month was presented to the congregation by the choir leader at the 11 o'clock service, Skye Donald.


Why Black History Month?As someone that grew up in Parksville and Qualicum Beach, I had a colour-blind up-bringing. With so few “others” around, it was easy to believe that everyone was equal and the same because that’s all we ever saw. With so few “others” – people that looked differently or spoke differently than the rest of us – there wasn’t a lot of direct bigotry to witness, especially since they were so few in number that there was no perceived threat to anyone’s way of life. It’s difficult to understand the pervasiveness of racism and systemic discrimination when you witness so little of it. Growing up here, I couldn’t understand why racial tension continued to be such a significant problem in the United States. At times, it seemed like Canada was far superior in its tolerance and celebration of other peoples… until I realised that Canada had centuries-old systemic racism of its own, albeit set up against a different group of people. With age, I began to understand that being colour-blind and believing everyone was equal was problematic because it failed to acknowledge the on-going reality of oppression, racism, and privilege.

Each week during the month of February, our worship at the 11AM service at St. Stephen’s United in Qualicum Beach will include music chosen specifically to commemorate Black History Month.  This month gives us an opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions made to worship and church music that have come to us from Africa and through the African diaspora. Contributions like spirituals, gospels, jazz, Caribbean, call and response, blues notes and swung notes, improvisation, hand-clapping, and syncopation. The music is tied to the lives and experiences of the people that created it, so learning about the music, we learn about the people. By learning about the people and the conditions in which the music was created, we can participate rather than appropriate. We can make connections. We can sing in solidarity.

Our Kyrie for February, “Nkosi, Nkosi” is a modern composition by G. M. Kolisi that was created in the traditional style of the Xhosa people. “Thuma mina” is a traditional South African song. Both songs were included in a 1984 publication by Sweedish musician Anders Nyberg called “Freedom is Coming: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa”. This notable collection introduced “Siyahamba” to North America.

Music was an important part of the movement against the apartheid in South Africa. In South African freedom songs of the twentieth century, southern African singing traditions are blended with the four-part choral style of Western hymnody. Artists and musicians were censored or persecuted as part of the apartheid. Outside of South Africa, their music helped influence the sympathies of Westernized nations, and inside the country, it unified the opposition to the apartheid and gave a voice not only to defiance, but to the hope and expectation of freedom and a new world. Here are some quotes from Anders Nyberg’s introduction to the collection:

“The white minority regime stops at no method to maintain and consolidate is power. But out of the suffering of the Black People a song is born. The singer can be silenced, but never the song: the hope of a free country, the dream of freedom, this song can never be taken from the people.”

“If we can enter in to these fantastic songs genuinely and fully, we will automatically be faced with many difficult and painful questions: Where do we stand in this struggle? Where does our society stand, or Church? Do we find ourselves amount these crazy, singing women round the cross who lost everything but just because of this are open to receive God’s Kingdom? Or do we find ourselves amount the well-to-do who refuse to part with their privileges and positions, and just because of this will lose all? Where do we stand? Where does Jesus stand?”

“Our innermost hope with this material is this: that we, by borrowing these songs of the poor and oppressed, will gain a deeper understanding of the joyful message of the poor, of the liberating power of the Gospel, and that in this way we may be able to make these jubilant songs our own.”

Our anthem this Sunday is the spiritual “Go Down, Moses”. This spiritual dates back to at least the 1850’s. Early records link it to both the Contrabands of the American Civil War and to Harriet Tubman’s biography about the Underground Railroad. This particular spiritual’s connection between the condition of the black slaves in the American South and the Biblical plight of the Israelites in Egypt should be obvious: both were a people enslaved, longing to be freed from their captors and find a land of promise in the north. Compare this struggle to our own enslavement – to sin, addiction, hardship, poverty, greed, poor health, loneliness – and our longing for restoration and redemption. This spiritual is an example of “call-and-response”: a leader sings the story, and the people sing respond back with a repeated phrase. This same pattern can be observed in many spirituals (Swing low, sweet chariot; Wade in the Water; Amen), and has been incorporated into gospel and popular music, too.

Unknown to me, our organist/pianist selected a hymn by a contemporary African-American composer as today's postlude. “Soon and Very Soon” was written by Andre Crouch, whose music I hope to include later this month.

Next week, our service will include the Thomas Dorsey hymn “Precious Lord” and another much-loved hymn - written by a dead white guy - that nonetheless is suitable to explore and discuss this month. I'm not sure what our anthem or solo we’ll be offering (it depends on the weather and the health of the choir), but I have a number of options, so once I decide, I’ll let you know.