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by Jim Strathdee
It was a cold and blustery Northern California day in late December. Jean and I stood with mandolin and guitar, leading Christmas carols in Friendship Park, a place of hospitality for Sacramento’s homeless people. A friend of ours and minister-at-large to the homeless community had asked us to go caroling with his flock. We held a quick and shivering rehearsal in the chilly midmorning and, then, about thirty of us decided to go caroling together. Huddled into vans, we were off to our first stop: the Sacramento County Building, where the supervisors were discussing a proposal to build one hundred low-income cottages for homeless families. We hoped that our songs of peace and goodwill might affect public policy (for those who had ears to hear). We went on to sing to the offices in the nearby state and federal buildings. This begins the heart of what I want to share with you.
I found this to be an amazing, eye-opening and heart-changing experience. These thirty rag-tagged residents of our city's streets and shelters sang with a gusto and fervor that deeply moved me. Seeing the old carols through their eyes and perspective gave the words a new meaning to me, even though some of the words were changed: “I'm dreaming of a warm Christmas”. “Away in a manger no crib for a bed” was especially poignant. But what was more amazing to me was the response of the bureaucrats and office workers that keep our government going. It was very evident to everyone we met where this group of singers came from. Many of us middle-class professionals would prefer that “these people” remain invisible, but the dress and demeanor of homelessness is difficult to disguise. What people found hard to believe was that “these people” who had so little themselves were offering to others songs of Christmas love with obvious joy and dignity. They were seen, acknowledged and received – an experience all too rare.
At one point, we stood on a second story balcony encircling a large rotunda. Many workers had come out of their offices on the far side of the balcony to hear us sing. We rendered our full repertoire, with carols bouncing off the marbled halls and rotunda as though it were a cathedral. Songs of God's Reign: hope, longing, justice and heavenly peace! Across the way, handkerchiefs came out of pockets, tissue out of purses, unexpected tears were wiped away. After our final song, there was an echo of silence between us and we all just looked at each other across the cavernous space. I knew in that moment a great gulf had been bridged. I knew that we stood in the presence of that heavenly peace we so long for and sing about. For a moment we were there!
The old carols still can unify our diverse culture in song and vision. But it was the context of bringing together people in the center of authority and those on the margin of society that gave these familiar carols their power that day. I am very clear that it will take more than singing to make peace and good will a social reality. But when the context and the music are aligned, we can glimpse wholeness and Shalom for a moment, and celebrate its presence among us.
It is God’s world, God’s realm. God’s ways are the only viable option for sustainable and vital existence on our planet. God’s Kin-dom is already here waiting for us to choose it, and affirm it with our acts of courage and understanding, compassion and justice. God’s Spirit is always with us, luring us and leading us into “Kin-dom moments.” Our challenge is to be open to see, hear, and sense God’s presence at every turn – then take the risk to trust the Spirit’s song, dance and journey for our lives. In this time of great confusion over religious language, the Spirit is speaking loudly to us through the arts. Music, dance, drama, prose, poetry, cinema, and all the visual arts can help us be reconnected to our deepest selves and to God’s intention for the entire human family and all of creation.
It was a rare and beautiful gift for my homeless friends and the government office workers to truly see and hear each other that day. Through our shared music, eyes and ears were opened, hearts were tenderized, and we knew the ground on which we stood was holy…and I’m happy to report that nearly 70 cottages were built.
Keep the faith, my friends! Keep on singing! God's peace to you!