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African American Sacred Music in Catholic Worship

Since Vatican II, African American sacred music and in particular, gospel music, has transformed the way many black Catholics and other Catholic believers worship God in the Holy Mass and in their everyday lives. This music has been at the core of African American survival in America and has for more than fifty years allowed African Americans and others to worship God in a manner befitting their cultural practices in the Holy Mass. Vatican II documents state very clearly that “ …. There are people who have their own musical tradition, and this plays a great part in their religion and social life. For this reason their music should be held in proper esteem and a suitable place be given to it, not only in forming their religious sense but also in adapting worship to their native genius,…” 1 African Americans have indeed adapted worship to their native genius in the American Catholic Church.

The African American Catholic worship experience has become the catalyst for dynamic church growth and a primary tool for evangelization. In the 1984 Pastoral Letter from the African American Bishops of the United States, "What We Have Seen and Heard, " they wrote, "We believe that the liturgy of the Catholic Church can be an even more intense expression of the spiritual vitality of those who are of African origin, just as it has been for other ethnic and cultural groups. There is a splendid opportunity for the vast richness of African American culture to be expressed in our liturgy. It is this opportunity, thanks to the norms established in the revised Roman liturgy, which enables our work of evangelization to be filled with such promise for the future." 2

The Importance of Quality Liturgical Music

The future for African American parishes is indeed inseparably connected to the worship experience. Pastors willing to give pastoral vision, leadership and commitment to liturgy are necessary in churches where authentic, culturally based African American worship is desired. With pastoral commitment to developing meaningful liturgies, communities can be strengthened and new members evangelized. For most African Americans, bringing a potential church member to Mass can be likened to bringing someone home for dinner to meet the family. Therefore, worship must be expressed in a manner befitting the cultural norms of the worshipping community or family.

Due to the low number of African American vocations in the Catholic Church today, white priests often pastor black parishes. In many cases, these men are not familiar or comfortable with a culturally based African American style of worship that may challenge their own ideas about the celebration of the Holy Mass. While many pastors strive to understand the needs of African American worship, many still endeavor to impose Euro American worship styles on black congregations. Twenty-first century liturgical reform efforts, such as the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal have given these same pastors more reasons to impose a Euro centered model of worship on black churches. Pastors must take care to impose current liturgical reforms in a manner conducive to the cultural expression of worshipping communities as mandated by Vatican II. African American culturally based worship models are forward looking, progressive, creative and universal in nature and will never fit into a pre Vatican II mold. African American worship is expressive, vibrant and depends largely on the music of its culture to express itself in spirit and in truth. Catholic documents fully indicate the Church's commitment to liturgy.

Its Instruction on Music in the Liturgy mandates that, Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song, with the ministers of each degree fulfilling their ministry and the people participating in it. Indeed, through this form, prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem. Pastors of souls will therefore do all they can to achieve this form of celebration.3

Music must be a top priority for pastors seeking to create dynamic African American worship experiences. In his book Soulful Worship, Father Clarence Joseph Rivers, a pioneer in the development of African American music in Catholic worship, also points out that: Worship is of primary importance for the Church, not only for the sake of the Church, in the narrow sense, but also for the sake of humanity itself. A very necessary ingredient in human progress is what I call a sense of transcendence – a sense of being able to go, to reach, beyond the boundaries and the limitations of the here and now…. not because God needs our worship, but because we need it.4

Liturgy, the core of the church's mission and existence, will remain vital in the twenty-first century when it is executed well by those ministers who know the power of liturgy. Fr. Rivers also notes, “The church must devote to worship all that it needs to become consistently, as it should be, a moving experience in which the Spirit of God can soften up the hearts of stone and make them hearts of flesh, in which by the breath of God’s Spirit we may be new born again.”5

Church Growth

One church that provides proof of the power of meaningful liturgy is the predominately African American Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Los Angeles. As with many churches, the late 1970"s marked the end of the guitar mass at Holy Name. But unlike most churches, Holy Name replaced the guitar mass with a contemporary gospel choir complete with a full rhythm section of drums, bass, guitar and piano. This change marked a natural evolution of the African American Catholic experience in many cities. As the black Catholics in this parish began to embrace their own culture"s music in worship, the liturgy began to attract more and more people. Young people --- who had been testing the waters at nearby Protestant churches in order to get “fed” -- began to come back to the Catholic church where they could feel connected in a way they"d never felt before. Evangelization efforts began to flourish, and membership grew, with many ministries sprouting up as young people began to experience the excitement of their faith and their church. As the African-American liturgical style became better known to the people in the neighborhood and the city, people would both visit and join the church in numbers not seen before in this black community. Other churches in Los Angeles such as St. Brigid's Catholic Church also experienced remarkable growth as gospel music integrated into the worship service.

The growing faith communities that have blossomed in dying African American Catholic parishes evidence the reality that quality African American worship increases church attendance and membership. Churches that were once near empty and on the verge of financial collapse and eminent closure have become bustling centers of spiritual connectedness and financial solvency. Church memberships have doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in some parishes where African American sacred music is done well in Catholic worship. In his The Emergence of a Black Catholic Community Morris J. MacGregor wrote:

Music has played an essential role in the history of St. Augustine"s, (an African American Catholic parish in Washington D.C.) Across the decades scores of talented parishioners have raised their voices in praise to God, fully conscious that their art served other causes as well. From the first the quality of sacred music in the church not only enhanced the meaning of the liturgy, but also attracted a large audience of visitors, black and white, Catholic and non-Catholic.6

The noted composer of African American Sacred Music for Catholic worship, Leon Roberts, argues that: “ the growing popularity of the liturgy at 12:30 mass revived St. Augustine"s. As for developments during the time I was there, only God could have achieved something like that. It was not the gospel choir itself that deserved the praise, rather it was the spirit of the people and the power of God working through the people.” 7

Universal Appeal

The power of God at work through music in African American Catholic worship has consistently proven its universal appeal. Worshippers of all races are attracted to the powerful sincerity and witness of this music when executed appropriately. As McGregor notes, “Martin Luther King Jr."s observation that Sunday mornings were the most segregated time in America did not apply to St. Augustine"s, whose congregation at Sunday masses and vespers was fully integrated during the long reign of Jim Crow in Washington.”8

African American music and worship breaks down the walls of race, gender and class and promotes the unity of minds. These black churches that were once neighborhood churches remain in communities were demographic shifts have occurred. Now the Sunday morning worshippers may drive 50 miles to come be a part of this Black Catholic worshipping community.

Fr. John Adamski, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Atlanta, Georgia, commented: African American music seems to have a quality of engaging people in ways different from much of Catholic church music today. Perhaps it"s the rhythmic difference that contributes to making the music feel accessible. Whatever the musical uniqueness, people seem to respond with more than a simply vocal or intellectual reaction. Somehow, the heart and, indeed, the whole self, our soul, seems touched or moved. Thus, many Lourdes' members appear to be engaged and responsive in a manner that is different than in most American, Euro-centric parishes.

The appeal of music in the African American idiom is not limited to African Americans, but is also attractive for white people. This may include some sense of participating in something that feels new and different, something out of the ordinary experience of the average white Catholic, but it also appears to touch common human experience. For African Americans, there seems to be a sense that some part of their cultural tradition is being incorporated into Catholic worship, so the whole worship experience isn"t simply a “white” experience. Since part of Catholic identity is a celebration of diversity, this musical style functions as an easy way for people who are from different backgrounds to feel connected to each other and, thus, a positive element in building a church community today.9

The History of African American Sacred Music in Catholic Worship

The late 1970"s and 1980"s marked a period of discovery for black Catholic musicians. Catholic musicians in the twentieth century were able to create, within the context of this new black Catholic genre, a type of universal music that was both black and Catholic. National workshops and conferences offered musicians an opportunity to learn and share their excitement and work in Catholic worship taught by the best and the brightest musicians the church had to offer. Black composers such as Clarence Rivers, Leon Roberts, Grayson Brown, Robert Ray, Rawn Harbor, Kenneth Louis, and others contributed to the Black Catholic choral repertoire primarily through self-publication, mainstream Catholic publishers such as GIA and OCP and, of course, the Lead Me Guide Me Hymnal. 13 Black composers have over the years contributed a wealth of service music that has helped define African American Sacred Music written specifically for Catholic worship.

During this period, many responsorial psalms were composed, such as Leon Roberts" soulful Let Us Go Rejoicing and Rawn Harbor"s forward-looking All the Ends of the Earth. These compositions are both uniquely African American and Catholic. Service music abounded as early as Clarence River"s Mass “Dedicated to the Brotherhood of Man,” and later Leon Robert"s “Mass of St. Augustine,” Grayson Brown"s “Cast Your Bread Upon the Water” and others. Avon Gillespie, Rawn Harbor, Roger Holliman, Roderick Bell, Kenneth Louis, Kevin Johnson, Ray East, Timothy Gibson and many others contributed African American Sacred Music for Catholic Worship to the repertoire. This period also inspired Black composers to write African American Sacred music for the concert stage such as Robert Ray"s Gospel Mass and others.

Where do we go from here?

The survival of the Black Catholic Church of the twenty-first century is highly dependent on the development of its music ministries. The Church must engage itself in seeking ways to enhance and, in many cases, create music ministries that will allow for the soulful worship of its people. If the church does not do this, young Catholic men and women will be drawn to other worshiping communities in America where their songs are being sung and stories are being told. The church experience must remain relevant and inspiring to a new generation of believers. The church must begin to address the multigenerational musical needs of its membership. A church that will attract young people, motivated the 'old school" generation, and satisfy its elders will continue to minister the music that speaks to the entire worshipping community. This is no easy task for the church today. In this new century, many black churches both Protestant and Catholic face the grim reality that there are not enough talented musicians seeking church employment.

Protestant Musicians

Many Black Catholic churches are forced to recruit musicians from Protestant churches because no Catholic musicians can be found. These Protestant musicians are in such high demand that they often serve both Protestant and Catholic churches each Sunday morning having to leave the Catholic church before the end of Communion in order to make it in time for their “home” church service. These musicians often bring with them the styles of their particular Protestant church traditions and attempt to fit those same musical ideals in the Catholic liturgy. Because of their narrow training, they are often unaware of, and unable to draw upon, the variety of musical possibilities of the African American Catholic experience.

Music ministers who have grown up in Protestant churches must be careful not to superimpose the traditions of those churches on Catholic worship for they have markedly different traditions and requirements. For example, black Catholics are not as familiar with well-known hymns of the black Protestant church. The music minister would have more success playing a well-known European Catholic hymn with attention given to African American performance practice. Another example is that some songs created in the Protestant Church are not conducive to the universal expectation of the Catholic worship experience and have religious connotations that do not translate to the Catholic experience. Songs such as “Get Right Church and Let"s Go Home” which is often used in many Protestant Church services, cannot work in the context of Catholic worship because the textual meaning is contrary to Catholic theology.

If Catholic pastors are going to hire non-Catholic musicians, they should find a way to train these musicians for ministry in the black Catholic Church. Being black and skilled in black music is not enough for the African American Catholic Church musician. In order to have a profound effect on liturgy, the musician must approach Catholic worship differently than Protestant worship. Musicians who select music for the liturgy must understand how the Mass is designed. While the flow of the liturgy is highly dependent upon the celebrant, it is equally dependent upon the music minister"s ability to select appropriate music. Musicians both Catholic and non-Catholic must be taught about the elements of the liturgy and then required to participate in liturgy meetings and other opportunities to get feedback from the community they serve. In their frantic searches for musicians, some churches do not or cannot consider the available musician"s experience or understanding of Catholic worship. Churches often hire musicians who demonstrate the ability to perform a particular style of music. The misconception search committees often have when searching for music ministers in the Black Catholic church is that any person experienced in the gospel music idiom will be able to successfully lead a worshipping community in contemporary African American Catholic worship. This is far from the truth. Gospel music or for that fact, any music, used in liturgy must be carefully thought out with a sensitivity to the flow of Catholic worship. One who understands the importance of music in an African American Catholic community will take the necessary steps to ensure that the music ministry presents the worshipping community that which is authentically Black and authentically Catholic.

Authentically Black and Catholic (Universal) Music

The goal for the musician in an African American Catholic Church must be to create a musically balanced worship environment that is authentically Black and authentically Catholic. As Clarence Rivers posits in Soulfull Worship, Musically liberated Catholics – like our forefathers who combine African and white protestant music to help produce the rich musics of black America – must be free to use traditional Catholic musics, and allow them free interplay with our Afro-American musics. The results will be a still greater enrichment of the Afro-American styles, further originality. The Afro-American tradition in music is a tradition of freedom and creativity. There are not, therefore, any absolute limits on what is “black”, as long as black men themselves freely choose it because they find it to be of value.14

Today we find a church where rap music is considered the preference of the young hip-hop generation of church goers, gospel music the preference of old school Christians, and the hymns of the church and negro spirituals the choice of the church elders. As Black Catholics, some of us still prefer the European Catholic model of worship to the African American model. With this in mind, the musician must have a commitment to creating a universal music not limited by categories or stylistic shortsightedness. “Be careful, therefore, not to imagine that blackness should be stereotyped into any given mold or definition. Such rigid dogmatism is more akin to European Scholasticism than it is to Afro-American tradition.”15

The African American musical experience in Catholic worship consists of a synthesizing of traditional music of Mother Africa often utilizing drums and African texts, Euro American hymns, negro spirituals, a variety of gospel music, jazz, pop, rap music and European Catholic music. This universal palette of musical experiences is consistent with the universal church. This explains the broad appeal of the African American Catholic worship experience. Rivers writes: “The fullest freedom for Black Catholics, musically speaking, will come not merely after we have learned what there is to learn from our black musical heritage, but only after we have come to imagine our yet unrealized musical possibilities. To cease to dream and to create is to become enslaved.16

Musical Composition

The evolution of African American Catholic worship will greatly depend on Black Catholic musicians" ability to compose quality music for the church. The Catholic Church has always encouraged composers, who are led by the Spirit of God, to compose music for the church. Vatican II documents indicate:

Composers, animated by the Christian spirit, should accept that it pertains to their vocation to cultivate sacred music and increase its stores of treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to the genuine sacred music, and which can be sung not only by large choirs but also by smaller choirs, and which make possible the active participation of the whole congregation. The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed, they should be drawn chiefly from the sacred scripture and from liturgical sources. 17

The progress made by black composers of Catholic church music in the last half of the twentieth-century will not be enough to sustain the African American Catholic worshipping community in the twenty-first century. The Lead Me Guide Me Hymnal is a wonderful resource but it does not contain compositions written after the late 1980"s. It provides superb documentation of the beginnings of the African American Catholic musical landscape, just as the African American Hymnal has done with Protestant Church music. We as African American Catholics must define our role in the American Catholic Church and in the lives of the hip-hop generation. New music must continue to be disseminated in black Catholic churches throughout America for this music will continue to refine and define the manner in which worship is offered in the church. Failure to do so will cause musicians in the Black Catholic Church to overuse the music in hymnals such as Lead Me Guide Me, or result in the inappropriate use of popular gospel music in the mass, or an environment of worship that is staid and outdated. Black Catholics have not built up the stores of musical repertoire that define its worship as have many dominant cultures and religions in the world. Despite the ability of the black musician in the Catholic church to draw from a variety of musical sources, music composed by and for African American Catholics can more completely capture the manner which its seeks to worship in song.

Professional Music Ministry

Churches must find ways to offer a living wage to music ministers for our church. The twenty-first century problem with the music of the African American Catholic worship experience lies in the Church"s inability to attract and retain competent musicians familiar with liturgy and with an appreciation for the unique treaure of the African American Catholic worship experience. To quote Rivers again:

A parish music program is not a part time job, when viewed both from the perspective of the musical needs of the parish, and from the perspective of the musicians" need to constantly keep their skills in readiness by rehearsing and drilling themselves in those skills: and also from the perspective of the musicians" need to constantly enlarge their skills so that they may become more professionally catholic and thereby become more capable of serving a community that must be catholic, i.e., universal, open to all men of all cultural preferences. As long as the parish musician is thought of as a part time employee and paid accordingly, we will have great difficulty in convincing potential Church musicians to consider this field for their life"s work. And we will always have the problem every few years of trying to find a new director because these musicians will soon move on to greener pastures; and their stopover in Church work will merely be a temporary expedient.18

Pastors who understand the role of music in African American Catholic churches do not pastor dead and dying churches. They understand the priority of worship and put in place music ministry that continually grows congregations and church memberships. Every successful mainstream black church with growing congregations has a well-paid music staff. In this hip-hop generation, if the Catholic Church is to attract and keep its young people, pastors must hire music ministers who are intent on building a music ministry. Once black Catholic churches find a way to hire professionally trained musicians to lead their music ministries, they can get in the business of training young black Catholic girls and boys to be church musicians.

Opportunities for training

Black Catholic churches must train their own musicians. Young people need to be mentored by music ministers to be the next generation of Catholic musicians. Many Protestant churches in the twenty-first century have adopted a music-institute model; this model serves as an ongoing musical training program for youth housed within the church and directed by the music ministers of the church. When the Archdiocese of Atlanta closed Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church dedicated the entire third floor of the school building to what it is calling “The Drexel Institute for the Arts,” named after St. Katharine Drexel, the founder of the school. In addition to providing a leadership model in the arts in Atlanta, the Institute trains the young people in the parish to be the next generation of Catholic musicians. The institute also serves the adult population through ongoing private musical instruction and music minister training for the parish. This program was born out of a school closing that devastated the parish community. African Americans have always been able to overcome adversity to create something out of nothing. This program can happen when a church understands the role of music not only in liturgy but the importance of music in African American life.

The Black Catholic Church of the twenty-first century must proactively encourage music ministries to create and or participate in Diocesan, Archdiocesan and National conferences, mass choirs and projects that expose regional musicians to high quality examples of the possibilities for music ministries. National workshops that draw from the best and the brightest African American Catholic ministries have to offer must be funded and offered on an annual or semiannual basis. Pastors must make dollars available and encourage or require their musicians to attend these conferences. A new standard of excellence in music ministry must once again be put in place in order to fill the void left by the passing of some of our brightest Black Catholic musical leaders.

Conclusion

The Black Catholic Church of the twenty-first century is very different from the Church of Clarence Rivers, Thea Bowman, Leon Roberts and other Black Catholic musical pioneers. Their work provided the leadership and vision necessary to define the parameters and possibilities for African American music in the Catholic Church.

Cyprian Davis comments in his essay “Speaking the Truth”:…African Americans have profoundly changed liturgical music. On the other hand, African American Catholic musicians have also added to the scope and breadth of African American sacred music. Far too often Black Catholics found themselves singing the songs of Zion in a foreign land. With hesitation and with effort did we take down our harps to sing a new song. And then we realized that it was no longer a foreign land and no longer a strange song. The former things had passed away.19

While the musical groundwork has been laid for the musicians of this new millennium, much is still left to do. The work of creating African American Catholic sacred music is not complete. We must continue to add to the stores of African American sacred church written for Catholic worship. Black composers must continue to compose music for use in the liturgy that meets the challenge of the new millennium to serve diverse congregations. Publications such as, The Lead Me Guide Me Hymnal will continue to be written as a testament to the progress and evolution of African American Catholics.

African American liturgy has touched the hearts of many worshippers both black and white and African American parishes have benefited from the universal appeal of its music and worship style. Yet, the quality and authenticity of black Catholic liturgical music must never be compromised in order to serve multicultural and or majority non-Black congregations. As the Church becomes more universal, African American Catholic liturgy must emerge as a soulful combination of traditional African American and Catholic liturgical musics. This can only be accomplished by renewed efforts to train young musicians in the ways of black Catholic worship and pastoral commitment to hire qualified professionals to lead music ministries.

Author biography and contact information

Dr. Kevin P. Johnson is an Associate Professor of Music and chairman of the Department of Music at Spelman College where his teaching opportunities include the Spelman College Glee Club and Chamber Singers, choral conducting and literature, music technology, and several courses relating to general music education. His church work currently includes: director for the Archbishop Lyke Memorial Mass Choir (Archdiocesan Choir in Atlanta), director of the Atlanta Catholic Inspirational Choir (choral tour of Italy, Summer 2007) and Minister of Music at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Atlanta, Georgia for the past seven years. He is married to Celeste and has three children, Ryan, Sarah and Kevin. The whole family is currently engaged in music ministry at Our Lady of Lourdes.

Johnson earned bachelors and masterís degrees in music from California State University, Los Angeles and a doctoral degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music. He taught choral and general music in high schools in Los Angeles for ten years, and has worked as Director of Music at Catholic churches for more than thirty years. Dr. Johnson is an active conductor/clinician for school honor choruses throughout the United States, and is often invited to provide choral workshops and retreats for music educators and churches. He serves as music director for local, regional and national conferences and events year round.

Johnson is a choral arranger and composer with works published by Colla Voce, GIA Publications and Treble Clef Press. Dr. Johnson and his wife Celeste founded Lion and Lamb Publishing where many of his works are published. He is a member of the American Society of Composers and Publishers as well as an active member of the American Choral Directors Association. He is a member of Pi Kappa Lambda National Music Honor Society, and has been the recipient of several musical honors and awards nationwide.

Most recently, Dr. Johnson served as music director for the National Black Catholic Congress X in Buffalo, NY. Where he presented his new African American Sacred Music for Catholic Worship Series entitled, Psalms for the Church Year, Volumes I, II, and III, to an audience of over 3000.

Dr. Johnson can be reached on 404-270-5480, email kjohns10@spelman.edu or at lionandlambpublishing.com.

1 Second Vatican: The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, General editor Austin Flannery, New York: O.P. Costello Publishing, 1963.

2 Black Catholic Bishops of the United States. What We Have Seen and Heard. Pastoral Letter on Evangelization. Cincinatti: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1984.

3 Secretariat Bishop"s Committee on the Liturgy National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In Spirit and Truth: Black Catholic Reflections on the Order of the Mass. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1988.

5 Rivers, Clarence Joseph. Soulfull Worship. Washington, D.C.: National Office for Black Catholics, 1974.

6 MacGregor, Morris J. The Emergence of a Black Catholic Community: St. Augustine"s in Washington. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1999.

7 MacGregor, 516.

8 MacGregor, 487. 9 John Adamski, letter to author, 2 March 2004.

10 Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, Second Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983.

11 Bowman, FSPA, Thea. “The Gift of African American Sacred Song,” Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 1987.

12 Rivers, Clarence Joseph. The Spirit in Worship. Cincinnati: Stimuli Inc., 1978.

13 Lead Me Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 1987.

14 Rivers, 42.

15 Rivers, 42.

16 Rivers, 43.

17 Second Vatican, 32.

18 Rivers, 40.

19 Davis, O.S.B., Cyprian, and Diana L. Hayes. Taking Down Our Harps; Black

Catholics in the United States. New York: Orbis Books, 1998.

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