Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tell me what a congregration sings and I will tell you their theology

Tell me what a congregration sings and I will tell you their theology
by Dwight Smith

NOTE: Dwight Smith and his wife serve the homeless community in Santa Ana, California. He shared the article below with me today and was gracious enough to allow me to re-publish it here. I hope it blesses you as it did me. - kg

To the Christian Century,

We run a house of hospitality and a soup kitchen in Santa Ana, California.

Today as we served lunch to about 200 souls in the government plaza, I wondered if I was becoming childish. As the acolytes of local government passed by, scowling, I "turned up the volume."

For fifteen years we Catholic Workers have been "reading the alphabet" while we arrange and distribute the US mail along with our soup. Knowing how utterly dependent homeless people are for the mail to contain the funds or documents they need for "redemption," I, years ago, became almost inured to their repeated requests that I "check again" or "keep a lookout" for their salvific correspondence.

To allay their fears that we might miss something, we began pulling an entire sheaf of incoming envelopes, gathered by the first letter of the last name, and crying out, "Doing the "M's," or "Doing the R's!" Then we would proceed to sing out the surnames so everyone in the soup- line could hear their "call."

Over the years I became culturally more sensitive. I pride myself on being able to pronounce Spanish and Vietnamese surnames. In a lower voice I can often guess how the mortified parents from Detroit and Mississippi would have their kid's names properly pronounced all these years later in this God-forsaken place so far from home.

By saying aloud every surname beginning with a given letter of the alphabet for every single communicant, we have arrived at a process that largely allays the fears of those for whom no check ever comes.

This process, a hymn of sorts, is the way we sing the names of the children whose ship won't be coming in; for those whose only ship is deportation; and for those whose forebears "already got their trip" on a slave ship many years ago. We sing the names of those who will not be rescued this time around - at least not in the way they want.

We sing out these names, a tiny balm over anxious and troubled waters, and we sit with the empty-handed until, on rare occasions and after many, many years, they raise their own voices in song.

It is then, thanks to your Pastors' message to a young seminarian, that I now recognize the hymnal of our theology: I now hear the loud, clear voice of those who have turned, undistracted by wealth or power or even sustenance, utterly toward the Cross.

It is the song of those reconciled to the singular sufficiency of the Redemption Himself; of those for whom no lesser counterfeit will suffice.

Thank you for your much needed and salvific interpretation. Tomorrow I pray that I might listen anew to the sound of my friends, silently singing of the Love that will at last their terrible suffering suffice.

Thank you for showing me how to follow this sweet, sweet sound.

-Dwight Smith

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