Editorial Volume 6, No. 1, Spring 2021

How do music, the arts, ritual, and worship affect the way we experience disasters? How do they help us make sense of death, loss, and anguish? In a year that has been marked by disaster for so many people across the globe, these questions are as important as ever. This issue of The Yale ISM Review invites readers to explore these questions in several different contexts: from COVID-19 to migration, from racial oppression to climate change. Amidst the variety of experiences of disaster, sacred arts and ritual emerge in these articles as ways to acknowledge, remember, heal, and hope.

We hope you are inspired and challenged by the pieces here offered. Please share this publication widely! Subscription is free and open to all.

Mark Roosien, guest editor
April 28, 2021

On the Challenge of Singing a New Church and a New World into Being: Liturgical Space and Prayer Amidst the Planetary Emergency

In teaching Christian environmental ethics to undergraduates, I begin each semester by surfacing several of the dimensions of the planet’s contemporary eco-social emergency: climate change, the erasure of biodiversity, ocean acidification, social and economic inequity, environmental racism.[1] Further, I note that the stresses these dimensions of the emergency inflict upon the biosphere are likely to continue to intensify in the coming decades. The collapse of the dominant global politico-ecological ordering of the planet is plausible, if not unavoidable.

The foremost task of contemporary Christian environmental ethics, I suggest to my students, is to discern how to live responsibly before God, neighbor, and earth, within and in response to the context of the planetary emergency. While this discernment requires empirical analysis and practical judgments, it is also a labor of the utopian imagination: the work of conceiving a new world and new ways of living in relation to the world.

With this last point in view, I have developed the practice of taking my ethics students into the Catholic chapel on campus during one class session each semester. The students walk around the building’s interior worship space and reflect upon its architecture and design. Specifically, I invite the participants to consider what the structure of this space might indicate about the relationship between the Christian imagination and the concerns of environmental ethics. 

Consistently, students in these class sessions observe that there are no windows at eye level within the space of worship. Instead, the apertures are elevated some twenty feet above the ground, requiring the worshiper to incline her eyes away from the earth and toward the heavens in order to get any sense of the world outside of the liturgical space. Moreover, these windows are adorned with stained glass images depicting the visages of various saints from the Roman Catholic tradition. As such, the windowpanes refract the light that passes through them so that even one’s vision of the heavens is obscured.

Within the worship space, as the students observe, the community of faith is cut off from the outside world. Affirming the observations of my students, I suggest that the building is designed to facilitate the experience of fuga mundi, a flight from the world. 

For the discourse of environmental ethics, building designs like that of my university’s chapel raise a number of concerns. Indeed, it is fairly obvious how the architecture of the chapel can present itself as evidence for the validity of the various environmentally-minded critiques commonly leveled against Christian thought. The space of worship appears to degrade the value of creation, directing the attention of the worshipping community away from the world and toward a spiritualized and other-worldly object of faith.  In the same way, the building’s design can be interpreted as implicitly endorsing a pernicious form of anthropocentrism, one that would place the human person over and against the rest of the created world. It appears, then, that the design of the chapel can encourage ways of seeing and acting in the world that would exacerbate rather than temper or remediate the onslaught of the planetary emergency.

There is, however, another way to understand the sensory break that the chapel’s design creates.

Consider that the fuga mundi of liturgical space, at its best, is not meant to function as an escape from creation. After all, it is amidst some of the Christian faith’s earliest controversies that Christian doctrine rejected the creation-degrading tenets of Manichean and Valentinian thought.[2] Instead, properly understood, the liturgical space’s fuga mundi is meant to create a break from the sin of the world. More precisely, the spaces and practices of liturgy are meant to construct a matrix of liminal space where the worshiper can discern, amongst other things, the ways in which their own desires, logics, and patterns of life have conformed to the sinfully destructive ways of the world.

Consider, for example, that the contemporary neoliberal political economy, a world-system that appears to be on the verge of buckling under the weight of its own contradictions, is organized through what Pope Francis has described as “the technocratic paradigm.”[3] This paradigm operates according to an instrumental logic that reduces complex patterns of eco-systemic life to the commodity of “land” so that the wealth of the land can be readily extracted and accumulated by powerful human and corporate actors. This same logic is also applied to complex cultural patterns of human life, working to reduce the value of human life to the commodity of labor. The rise of this paradigm, which has culminated in the establishment of a globalized market society, has had catastrophically damaging  effects upon the health and functioning of the biosphere.[4]

Moreover, as the technocratic paradigm arose within the history of modernity, it melded with the anti-Black racist imaginaries produced by Western colonialism. This ideological amalgamation has resulted in the standardization of patterns of environment racism throughout the world. In other words, as the technocratic paradigm optimized the exploitation of the soil and all that comes from the soil in the service of profit, the paradigm simultaneously concentrated the costs of ecological degradation in Black and Indigenous communities of color. Thus, as James Cone presciently saw two decades ago, “The logic that led to slavery and segregation in the Americas, colonization and Apartheid in Africa, and the rule of white supremacy throughout the world” likewise produces the destruction of the earth and biotic life. “It is a mechanistic and instrumental logic that defines everything and everybody in terms of their contribution to the development and defense of white world supremacy.”[5] The logic that Cone describes exercises inordinate influence in shaping the world today.

In light of Cone’s observation, it appears that fuga mundi, far from being an obstacle to developing a responsible lived Christian environmental (and social) ethic, is a necessary element of the process of beginning to imagine ways of serving and caring for the soil and all that comes from it. Human persons and communities must create critical distance from the structures, logics, and aesthetics of the “modern world-system.”[6]

Thus, the liminality that liturgy and the architecture of sacred spaces can produce, when set against the necropolitics that organize the political ecology of the world, functions as an offer to choose life. This liminality is an invitation to affirm the mystery and dignity of human life, to affirm the sacramentality, beauty, and gift-character of the whole of creation, and to identify and denounce the milieu of anti-Black racism and environmental racism as sinful and evil. The flight from the sin of the world is, in short, an opportunity to re-imagine our relationship to the world, so that we might go forth and, however partially, incarnate those imaginings by working to transform our swords and spears of domination into plowshares and pruning hooks of service and care (Is. 2:4).

To be clear, the break from the world that is potentially created by liturgy and liturgical space does not necessarily produce a more healthful ecological, social, or political imagination. The space and practices of Christian worship always contain problems and contradictions. As H. Paul Santmire observes, despite its early rejections of Gnostic thought, the Christian tradition’s ecological promise is best characterized as ambiguous.[7] More recently, Willie James Jennings has shown that within modernity the Western Christian imagination developed into a “diseased social imagination”—a social imagination that itself produced and reinforced notions of anti-Black racism and desacralized understandings of place.[8] In light of Jennings’s argument, one can question whether liturgy and liturgical space create much of a break at all from the sin of the world. Indeed, given the diseased character of the Western modern Christian imagination, it should be presumed that this sickness, at least in part, is also present and at work in the spaces and rituals of (especially White Western bourgeois) Christian worship.

Like salvation itself, then, Christian worship is both a gift and a task. With respect to the latter, liturgy and liturgical space require the continual cultivation of the prophetic vocation bestowed to all communities of faith. Within these spaces, it is vital that the people of God learn to name sin rightly, articulating both formally and concretely the ways in which evil distorts and disrupts the human person’s intimate communion with God, neighbor, and earth. The task of rightly naming grace is likewise integral to the prophetic vocation so that communities of faith can more fully recognize how they might cooperate with the salvific movement of the Spirit in history, as God continues to labor to restore communion among God, neighbor, and earth. It is through the practice of the prophetic vocation within the space of worship – the denunciation of the sin of the world and the proclamation of the healing that has occurred and is to come – that the liturgical space can realize its potential to become a fuga mundi in the healthiest sense of the term.

In closing, I return to my observation regarding the stained-glass figures adorning the windows of my campus’s chapel. In an obvious manner, as I noted above, these figures obscure the outside world. In a more profound sense, however, the light that passes through these icons is meant to unveil the deepest truth of the outside world. It does so by illuminating images that bear witness to God and God’s creating and liberating relationship to the world. At their best, then, the stained-glass images that adorn the chapel do not obscure creation. Rather, they transfigure creation, thereby illuminating its truest character.

The function of the stained glass, then, provides a key insight into the task of liturgy today. In this time of planetary emergency, liturgical space and prayer – through their structure, proclamation, song, ritual, and sacrament – ought to facilitate the transfiguration of the imaginations of persons and communities of faith. Indeed, in this moment of pending and realized catastrophe, the transfiguration of the Christian imagination is vital so that communities of faith might better perceive the things of this world that must be confronted, denounced, and mourned, and likewise discern all of that which is to be cherished, protected, celebrated, and proclaimed.

In short, the task of the liturgical fuga mundi is to produce a new way of seeing, so that when persons and communities of faith return to the world, they might more fully take up the work of healing and repair, not only in faith but also in hope and love.


Daniel P. Castillo is Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University Maryland. His teaching and research explore the intersection of liberation theology and environmental ethics. He is the author of An Ecological Theology of Liberation: Salvation and Political Ecology (Orbis Books, 2019), which received College Theology Society’s “Best Book” Award for 2020. He is currently working on a second monograph, tentatively entitled Confronting the Age of Cain: Christian Faith in the “Anthropocene.” 

[1] For an overview of several of these environmental factors, see Will Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig, “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration” The Anthropocene Review 2 (2015): 81–98.

[2] See for example, Francis Watson, “In the Beginning: Irenaeus, Creation and the Environment,” in Ecological Hermeneutics: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives, eds. David G. Horrell, et al (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010), 127–139.

[3] Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, esp. Ch. 3. http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

[4] For a brief discussion of the relationship between the technocratic paradigm, market society, and Western colonialism, see Daniel P. Castillo, An Ecological Theology of Liberation: Salvation and Political Ecology (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2019), 141–161.

[5] James Cone, “Whose Earth Is It Anyway?” Cross Currents 50 (Spring/Summer 2000): 36.

[6] Of course, persons and communities that are marginalized by the structural dynamics of this system often maintain a keen critical awareness of the system by virtue of their own experiences. On this point, see Sandra Harding, “Standpoint Epistemology (a Feminist Version): How Social Disadvantage Creates Epistemic Advantage” in Social Theory & Sociology: The Classics and Beyond, ed. Stephen P. Turner (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), 146-160.

[7] H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature : The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1985).

[8] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 9.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Castillo, Daniel P. (2021): “On the Challenge of Singing a New Church and a New World into Being: Liturgical Space and Prayer Amidst the Planetary Emergency,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 10. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

Eye of Witness, Hand of Faith: The Art of Asylum and New Retablos at the Border

Story cloth embroidered by Wendy, Asylum-seeker from El Salvador, 2020

We enter into the art of immigration through the wide-open eye, a symbol of watchful witness found in the artwork of migrating youth. Like children’s drawings smuggled out of Nazi concentration camps that incriminated Auschwitz personnel, or the detailed drawings by refugee children from Darfur that bore witness to their country’s 2003 genocide, recent drawings by migrant children locked in detention facilities on the U.S. southern border show that the wide-open eyes of children never forget. Through their enduring witness, neither shall we.

Eye of Witness: The Art of Asylum

Drawn by youth at Casa Alitas Migrant Shelter, Tucson, AZ 2019

Casa Alitas is Tucson’s main short-term migrant shelter for people coming from Mexico, Central and South America. From 2018-2019, guests at Casa Alitas would often draw the unvarnished truth of migration at night after shelter volunteers had left for the day. With chunks of crayon and chalk, both children and adults drew with abandon on scraps of paper, ripped cardboard, or whatever was at hand. They used bits of harvested tape and even gum to attach their drawings to the wall, ensuring that their drawings would be seen by volunteers in the morning so they would know the truth of what they had been through.

Within the refugee community, where most every guest has been traumatized and verbal communication can be challenging, the need for the universal language of art is profound.

As the volunteer Arts Coordinator at the shelter, I remember a young boy who, while standing up at a table, rapidly drew house after house, filling up the entire piece of paper as soon as I laid it before him. It was all I could do to keep up with him as I brought in bin after bin of crayons, colored pencils, markers. After his third house, his breathing slowed, his drawing was more fluid, and he finally sat down.

It is in the safe retelling of our stories through expressive arts – visual arts, storytelling, movement, and music – that we begin to loosen the grip of trauma upon our bodies and brains, our hearts, and our souls. Healing happens in the creation of narrative and meaning. Trauma-informed arts and activities provide calm in the storm, allow for safe self-expression, and promote resilience.

Most guests, then and now, stay at the shelter for just a few days, until they are able to arrange transportation to families and sponsors across the United States. In a short-term facility like Casa Alitas, arts facilitators gently host groups, provide a choice of art materials, encourage and facilitate. Careful not to re-traumatize, they do not prompt or elicit intimate personal stories from guests.

From 2018-2019, during an expanded influx of asylum-seekers from Mexico, Central and South America, so much art was produced at the shelter that it soon became an exhibition. Many of the drawings and paintings chosen for the exhibit were pulled from stacks of paper discovered after guests had left.  These visual testimonies, often anonymous, are unsparingly honest and authentic.

In the exhibition “Hope and Healing: The Art of Asylum,” one small, easily overlooked drawing is stark testimony of a five-year old’s direct experience of trauma. In the foreground, two stick figures locked in a gun fight stand next to a house riddled with what appears to be gunshot holes. The weapon looms large in the foreground. Both figures’ heads are smudged with blood red marker.

Drawn by a child at Casa Alitas Shelter, Tucson, Arizona, 2019

To the right, a door-shaped grid of criss-crossed bars drawn with black marker is strikingly similar to other drawings by children in detention. Next to the grid, two large green trucks head straight for a larger fortified wall, another oft-seen symbol in drawings by children crossing the border. In the background we see a barrier of spiky shapes–- mountains, or perhaps a wall, we do not know. We will never really know, nor can we presume to analyze what has happened to this child. We can only acknowledge and honor what we see.

Art by Selvin, Casa Alitas, Tucson, Arizona 2018

Signs of displacement and dislocation rip through young refugees’ unbridled artwork: volcanos erupting, people and animals fleeing, roads and rivers, walls and vehicle barriers, cars, trains and airplanes, all manner of birds, evidence of human-and climate-caused violence, trauma, and loss.

Anonymous, Casa Alitas, Tucson, Arizona 2019

In the piece above, a large group of people flees through the desert from what appears to be rolls of concertina wire. Arrows point to the safety of a highway in the distance. The message: Recuerdo de una historia, “Memory of a story,” beseeches the viewer to remember this story.

For other guests safely on their way to family or sponsors in the U.S., optimism and hope – bright flowers, sunshine, and smiling faces – characterizes their artwork.

A popular prompt to “Draw what you love” (or, “draw what’s in your heart”) elicits calm and generates a sense of safety for traumatized children and adults. This simple, affirming prompt with a choice of art materials (including embroidery and other culturally aligned textile arts), allows guests to create whatever they need to feel more grounded while in the throes of migration. Drawing what you love became a cornerstone practice of all trauma-informed arts and activities programs at the shelter.

On rare occasions, the prompt might lead a guest to draw subject matter that represents what they’ve loved and lost, especially youth who, in the chaos, are sometimes forced to leave beloved pets behind. Not wanting to burden their parents, they often keep their feelings of loss to themselves. The act of drawing the pets they love became an exercise in remembering and honoring. When finished, they were quick to proudly share stories of their beloved pets with the other kids and volunteers.

Artwork by adults and children brimming with faith and gratitude, churches, crosses, and devotional figures, were often the first (sometimes only) images and symbols completed by guests. Border Patrol and I.C.E. regularly take away all personal items from people when they’re apprehended, but they cannot take away one’s faith.

Cristian y Jadiel, Casa Alitas, Tucson, Arizona, 2019

Other images grounded in faith, drawn instinctively by guests, are bucolic landscapes coupled with messages of thanks and gratitude to God and the volunteers.

In addition to the violence that stalks our nearest neighbors and forces them to leave their homelands, many are climate refugees. Illustrating healthy harvests and remembering el mundo natural and healthy flora and fauna is a devotional act that keeps hope alive.

Drawn by Jairo, Casa Alitas, Tucson, Arizona, 2019
Anonymous, Casa Alitas, Tucson, Arizona 2019

In the image above, rendered in a faint hand, a family is stuck on one side of a looming wall while on the other side, we see a church with the word “Welcome” in English and the words “Logrado – Accomplished” and “Sueno Complido – the Dream Complete.” This narrative drawing is similar to storied images seen in retablos, religious paintings (specifically ex-votos)small, personal, stylistically primitive votive paintings that were historically given to churches to fulfill a vow. Ex-votos are visual prayers of gratitude and devotion to God for having overcome a terrible ordeal: an accident, illness, or a grave loss, or, as in this case, for having made it through the gauntlet of migration to the “promised land.”

In the book Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States,[1] authors Jorge Durand and Douglas S. Massey tell us that retablos address “The human need to communicate with the divine (that) transcends temporal and cultural boundaries. And that… the practice of leaving of objects to supplicate or thank a deity has very ancient roots.”

Hand of Faith: Embroidered Retablos at the Border

Complete story cloth embroidered by Wendy, asylum-seeker from El Salvador, 2020

In the Fall of 2020, Wendy, a devout Salvadorian mother seeking asylum, embroidered the story cloth above that is the centerpiece of “Bordando Esperanza, or Embroidering Hope: Devotional Retablos of Asylum” (2020-2021). It is a group exhibition of embroideries created by asylum-seekers stranded at the U.S.-Mexico border during the COVID-19 pandemic.

After almost a year on the streets and in shelters in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, “searching for the American Dream,” Wendy had no choice but to return to El Salvador. On a layover at the Guatemalan border, she stitched this ex-voto-like embroidery-bordado.

Wendy is the former on-site coordinator of Artisans Beyond Borders, our bi-national Border Arts ministry for Asylum-seekers in Nogales, Sonora. She adds this visual memoir, her recuerdo, to the exhibit because she wants the world to understand her experience and the faith she’s leaned on against insurmountable odds. Similar to story cloths from other conflict areas around the world, Wendy’s personal narrative in needle and thread documents, and also begins to heal, the trauma of migration. Like a traditional ex-voto, she leaves it now, in supplication and thanks, at the capilla, the chapel of the exhibit, to join other devotional retablos embroidered by her compañeras.

Wendy’s story cloth blends her lived experience, pictured on one side of the embroidered border wall, with the imagined, pictured on the other side. In the upper left, we first see her hopes: the shining city on the hill, the sign that reads EEUU (Estados Unidos – United States), and the migrant with his back towards us, cell phone in his pocket.

In the upper middle, a man with a gun assaults a woman and child. The figures represent Wendy’s greatest fear: being assaulted on the road with her two-year-old son. She shared the crushing nightmares she had after her shelter-mate in Nogales, another young mother of two, whispered about passing dead bodies in the Sonoran Desert as she crossed the border on foot with her two children to join her husband and the rest of her family in the U.S.

In these two elements alone – the migrant gazing off into the shining city on the hill and the woman and her child being assaulted, we see the inexorable relationship between hope and fear.

In the upper right corner: the great wide-open eye sheds its tear into a satchel of sorrow tied to a migrant’s staff. Behind the traveler are crosses and headstones and water bottles littered across the desert. Ahead we see a bare, black tree and omnipresent black birds. Death stalks the man as he walks off the edge of the cloth and into the unknown.

As our eyes travel down to the lower right, we see the ubiquitous Golden Arches. Wendy and her friends at the shelter could see McDonald’s el otra lado, on the other side through the fence every day. They swore to meet there when they made it across.

The gaping maw of the border wall topped with rolled razor wire snakes through Wendy’s world. With needle and thread, she artfully stitched in the man she watched one day trying to scale the wall and pantalones left behind, caught on the wire. We wonder, did he make it across?

On the Mexican side of the wall, the train – la Bestia, replete with tiny figures riding on top, slams into the wall, going nowhere fast. Next to the train, we see a small medicinal portion of hope: helpful frontline workers represented by the ambulance that she says helped save her son’s life when he suddenly fell ill. Next to the ambulance is a table topped with balls of color. A facilitator from Artisans Beyond Borders passes out embroidery supplies, art therapy that would prove to be indispensable during the long wait at the hospital by her son’s side.

The three figures above are the family Wendy had with her in Nogales; her mother and her younger sister, and the others are friends watching and waiting for the border to open.

In the bottom left corner of the cloth Wendy holds onto her son Johnny’s hand, as she walks the streets of Nogales in winter with no place to rest, bent over with the weight of her suitcase, and her two-year-old. She tells me that this is what she remembers the most, the weight bearing down on her, so heavy that sometimes she felt she couldn’t breathe.

Early on into the pandemic, an increasing number of embroidered devotional retablos came in from the shelters and off of the streets. Much of this work is deeply personal but when offered back to them with love, the artisans refuse. They would rather their work be homed with supporters in the U.S.

“If it infects me lord, let it be with your faith and love,” Original retablo embroidered by Irma from Guatemala, U.S. – Mexico border, 2020

Whether they’ve embroidered conventional Christian iconography or elements of the natural world infused with Dios, the artisan’s devotional retablos rendered in cloth are intimate personal prayers, embodied testimonies of faith.

For most of the asylum-seekers, the act of devotion lies in material practice, the mindful stitching itself, the slow contemplative act of moving a needle and thread through cloth. The act of embroidering their original designs inspired by the natural world and memories of home permeates the soul and body with peace. The clean cloth canvas secured within the embroidery hoop allows the maker to begin the process of mending a life that has been ripped and torn asunder. The artisan has the agency to design a world, even a heaven, of his or her own.

“I leave my destiny in your hands my God,” Original retablo embroidered by Dalianas from Cuba, U.S.- Mexico border, 2020.

Unlike the mothers (and some fathers) at Casa Alitas who worked with embroidery materials during their brief stay and left for their new homes carrying works in progress, most of the bordadoras in the Artisans Beyond Borders collective have been stranded at the U.S.-Mexico port of entry for over a year now. Time weighs heavy on their hands and their craft deepens as they surrender to each passing day. In addition to the small but essential wage they receive for their handwork – a huge blessing for families with so little – the venerable art of embroidery, uniquely suited to trauma care, reminds us that the power of God’s grace is at our fingertips.

When Wendy completed her story cloth, she was exhausted but relieved. “The weight has been lifted off my shoulders at last,” she said. “I have told my story.”

“The name of the Lord is strength,” Original retablo embroidered by Felicitas, U.S.- Mexico border 2020

Asylum-seeker and artisanal embroiderer Patricia Martinez with Valarie James

Valarie Lee James is a longtime resident of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and founder of Artisans Beyond Borders. A former Clinical Art Therapist, she was coordinator of the all-volunteer Trauma-informed Arts & Activities Program at Tucson’s Casa Alitas Migrant shelter, and co-curator of “Hope & Healing: The Art of Asylum” exhibition of artwork by Casa Alitas refugee youth. Her writings on arts and immigration can be found at America Magazine, Open Democracy, and EpiscopalMigrationMinistries.org, and as a Benedictine Oblate, she writes at The Global Sisters Report. Artisans’ “Profiles in Courage and Creativity” can be read at Art and Faith in the Desert.


[1]Jorge Durand and Douglas S. Massey, Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States, (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995), 9.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: James, Valarie Lee (2021): “Eye of Witness, Hand of Faith: The Art of Asylum and New Retablos at the Border,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 9. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu.

Faces of a Disaster

1. Murals by Mohammad Ma’ali portray two martyrs from Dheisheh: in the foreground, Mahmoud Zaghari, killed  in 2004 at the age of 22 during a clash with Israeli troops in Bethlehem, and in the background Nasser Alqasass, 15, killed in 1989 after stepping outside his home during a curfew. Photograph © 2016 Margaret Olin.

In 1948 and again in 1967, the parents and grandparents of the young people in these photographs fled villages throughout the area that is now Israel and the West Bank. They found shelter in the Dheisheh refugee camp, established in 1949 on the edge of Bethlehem by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), under whose supervision it remains.

Dheisheh was originally established as a tent city on 1/3 square kilometers,  meant only as a temporary solution while refugees waited to return to their homes. Over 70 years later, the “camp” is now a crowded urban area that houses about 15,000 registered inhabitants, nearly half of them children. Most of them continue to wait.

I have written elsewhere of the depiction  of waiting that continues, in words and images, on the crowded walls of the camp.[1] But beyond images of waiting, those walls, almost alive with oversize faces of the dead, turn a refugee camp visually into a memorial city through which the inhabitants wend their way, live their lives, and argue.

2. Kifah Obeid, a 12-year old killed in 2001 while throwing stones. Photograph © 2016 Margaret Olin.

The event that gave rise to Dheisheh, and other refugee camps like it, is known to Palestinians as “the disaster,” or in Arabic, Nakba. In this brief essay I would like to raise the possibility of taking seriously the meaning of the word Nakba, and of considering these painting practices in the light of the ongoing disaster of the Israeli occupation.

By bringing to life these haunting faces that loom above the inhabitants, and above the children who argue, play, and live their lives there, I hope also to illuminate the interplay between disaster ritual, private mourning practices, and politics.  The story I tell focuses on only one camp, but it is representative of many cities and camps in Palestine and beyond, in Jordan or Lebanon.

3. The murals, by Mohammad Maily, show three important figures from the PFLP, the writer Ghassan Kanafani, the leader Wadie Haddad, and the (still living) Layla Khalid, known for attempting to hijack two airplanes. On the right is depicted Naji al-Ali, political cartoonist assassinated in 1987. Photograph © 2015 Margaret Olin.

The dead in these murals include martyrs of Dheisheh and martyrs of Palestine, assassinated cultural and political leaders, and revolutionary figures from abroad. Assassinated political leaders, like the noted author of “Return to Haifa” and other works, Gassan Kanafani, rub shoulders with Che Guevara, and with teenage boys who were in the act (or under suspicion) of throwing stones or crude Molotov cocktails at demonstrations. Some were killed while helping wounded demonstrators, some while attempting to evade arrest for other punishable offenses. Belonging to a “cell” that could hatch a plan to throw rocks at soldiers was one such offense.

Many of the murals display the insignias of political parties. Often these parties, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), or Fatah, the party in power in the Palestinian National Authority, have paid for the materials to create the murals. The political and military context of the practice of painting murals for martyrs on the walls here, which seems to date from the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, supports their interpretation as propaganda, much like the posters of martyrs that have played an important role in the visual culture of Palestine since at least the 1970s. In addition, the visual culture of murals and posters are sometimes regarded as contributing to the normalization of violence.[2]

4. A mural for Qusay Al-Afandi, who was killed by Israeli troops at the age of 17 in 2008. Photograph © 2015 Margaret Olin.

Certainly, political aims play a role in the creation of the murals, which explains the eagerness of political parties to subsidize them. Yet it is unjust to dismiss them as political propaganda alone. They have other purposes. Many of the murals portray young people from Dheisheh, some not much older than the children who play under their images. They are well known to the children as relatives: parents, sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, and cousins. While the nearby separation wall is a “global message board,” the murals in Dheisheh are generally made by residents of the camp.[3] They are personal and communal. Indeed, the personal is political in the murals of Dheisheh. And sometimes, as we shall see, in the tension between these two realms, the ritual evolves.

5. The mural, by Yazan Ghareeb, in memory of Ahmed Mesleh, contains names of young people of the camp killed by Israeli soldiers. Photograph © 2014 Margaret Olin.

Established practices of communal mourning enable families and friends of the deceased, and their traumatized community, to deal repeatedly with immense and ongoing loss. The martyrs of Dheisheh have, in essence, two public homes. First, the Cemetery of Martyrs established at the base of the camp in 2000, to hold the martyrs of the then just beginning Second Intifada, when nearby cemeteries, one at the Aisha camp and another southeast of Bethlehem, were inaccessible.

Not all martyrs from Dheisheh since then have been buried in the “Cemetery of Martyrs,” but fifty-three of them have been, and on the first day of Eid, as many as two hundred people may visit the tiny cemetery.[4] Every morning, the father of one martyr reads the Koran on his balcony overlooking the cemetery where his 17-year-old son Sajed, a medic killed while attempting to administer to an injured protestor, and his 14-year-old nephew Arkan, shot after throwing a stone at a departing military vehicle, were buried within a year of one another.[5]

6. Cemetery of the Martyrs, Dheisheh. Photograph © Omar Hmidat.

Soon after their burial, martyrs find a second home closer to the living, in murals that are usually placed on the street where they resided. The family, or an organization, may contact an artist, negotiate over the content, and subsidize the materials. The artist often paints late at night to avoid attracting a crowd. Children are often eager to show you the portraits of their martyrs.[6]

7. The younger sister of Arkan Mizhar sits under his memorial mural by Omar Salim. Photograph © 2019 Margaret Olin.

Some disasters, like earthquakes and terrorist attacks, are sudden and over in minutes. Others, like a pandemic, may last a year or more. The disaster, the Nakba, that initiated the situation in which the refugees find themselves, was singular and sudden, and the 1967 defeat, also a disaster for Palestine, was over even more quickly.

Yet the occupation that followed both of these disasters has itself the characteristic of an ongoing disaster, with the need constantly to brace oneself for immediate losses: of youth who fall to the bullets of soldiers, of permits to work in Israel, of one’s home, when it is destroyed because someone who lives in it has become a suspect.

For refugees in camps, the ongoing disaster emerges from the provisional character of a life in suspension, the making of a lifelong home in what was meant to be temporary quarters, while one nominally waits to return to a normal that is all but forgotten.[7]

8. Ayed Arafah, mural for Qusai Al Afandi, killed in 2008 while throwing stones during a raid. Photograph © 2017 Margaret Olin.

The burial of a martyr and his reappearance on the street help to restore order, to build the new normal that is a major function of a disaster ritual. Yet the ongoing deaths of young people in Dheisheh, a few each year, continue to punctuate periods of relative order as the disaster continues.

The expectation and fulfilment of these rituals help people manage the multiple losses, but the very phenomenon shows that a disaster ritual can be a double-edged sword.

Ronald Grimes speculated, in reference to the commemoration of the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, that ritual disaster practices can play into nationalist propaganda.[8] Similarly, some within the Dheisheh community, including some muralists, also speculate that large murals of martyrs characterized as warriors could encourage the worship of militarism, at the expense of overlooking much of value in Palestinian culture. These attitudes often leave their mark on the walls themselves.

Yet now that the idea of the martyr mural has been embedded in the culture, it has become  impossible for artists, who are all themselves camp residents, to refuse the request for a mural from the family of a martyr. The likelihood that organizations such as the PFLP will take advantage of a family’s grief for the purpose of propaganda does not make it easier to refuse.

9. Left: Ahmed Hmeedat, Mural for Jihad al-Jaafary, 20, who was killed in 2015 while standing on his rooftop during a raid. Right: anonymous mural for Jihad al-Jaafary. Photograph © 2015 Margaret Olin.

The friction between the personal and the political is sometimes felt in negotiations over the murals. A fraught negotiation can take place, for example, over an attempt to portray the deceased as anything other than a warrior, even when the martyr himself had little interest in being a “warrior.”

In one case, competing representations resulted in the transformation of a narrow street into a painted dispute. Jihad al Jaafary, a twenty-year old who was shot by Israeli troops on the roof of his house in early 2015, was portrayed throwing stones in a mural on one side of the street where he lived, while on the opposite side the artist Ahmed Hmeedat portrayed him in his dancing costume. The political sponsor insisted on the inclusion of a weapon, so Hmeedat provided one of the doves surrounding Jaafary with an M16 rifle. A poster appeared on the street as well. In accord with the consistently more propagandistic tendency of posters, it portrayed the young man with an arsenal of weapons that, I was told, he never owned.[9]

10. Ahmed Hmeedat, mural of poet Mahmoud Darwish, with a quotation from his work. Photograph © 2014 Margaret Olin.

Some artists tried, with varying degrees of subtlety, to amend the ritual to express less militant values. The artist Ayed Arafah thought that the harsh, black and white style of the murals emphasized the grim celebration of violent death, and that painting murals in color would insert more life into the walls. Hmeedat went further by adding new subjects to the murals. If warriors – and innocent young people disguised as them – were the only heroes, he reasoned, then the Palestine that children are brought up to treasure is not worth fighting for. He began painting, in color, the likenesses of deceased cultural figures on the walls.

With or without color, the visual culture of the cemetery below and that of the city above have begun to blend, as the likenesses on the walls have begun to appear on tombstones, and residents have begun to identify the two spaces with one another.

“It is a bit disturbing to think about the empty graves in these cemeteries: built and open graves, as if they are awaiting the next martyr,” one resident told me. “Just like an empty wall, awaiting the next face.”[10]

There will probably be more faces soon.

11. Who will be next? Dheisheh Refugee Camp. Photograph © 2016 Margaret Olin.

Margaret Olin has appointments at Yale Divinity School as well as in Yale’s Department of Religious Studies, the Program in Jewish Studies and the Department of the History of Art. She is the author of three books, Forms of Representation in Alois Riegl’s Theory of Art (Penn State Press, 1992), The Nation Without Art: Examining Modern Discourses in Jewish Art (University of Nebraska, 2001), and Touching Photographs (University of Chicago Press, 2012). With Robert S. Nelson, she edited Monuments and Memory, Made and Unmade (University of Chicago Press, 2003), and with Steven Fine and Maya Balakirsky-Katz, she edits the journal Images: A Journal of Jewish Art and Visual Culture. She is also a practicing photographer, whose photographic work plays a fundamental role in her scholarship. Her interests include Jewish spatial practices, theories of perception, and the theory and practice of visual witnessing. Some of these concerns can be followed on the occasional blog touchingphotographs.wordpress.com.

[1] Margaret Olin, “How Long Will Handala Wait? A Ten-Year-Old Barefoot Refugee Child on Palestinian Walls,” in Christoph Singer, Robert Wirth and Olaf Berwald, ed. Timescapes of Waiting: Spaces of Stasis, Delay and Deferral (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 176-197.       

[2] “No longer marked off with the intensity of an “event,” except at particular moments, death and violence form part of the “totalitarian overcoding of social life” (Hardt and Negri 2000:113) that is typical of moments of high nationalism,” Lori Allen, “Getting by the Occupation: How Violence Became Normal during the Second Palestinian Intifada,” Cultural Anthropology 23 (August, 2008): 453-487.

[3] Craig Larkin, “Jerusalem’s Separation Wall and Global Message Board; Graffiti, Murals, and the Art of Sumud,” The Arab Studies Journal 22, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 134-169; Special Issue: Cultures of Resistance.

[4] Rebecca George, “Photo Essay: A Visit to Bethlehem’s Martyr Cemetery,” Mondoweiss (21 July 2015), https://mondoweiss.net/author/rebecca-george/. For a nuanced discussion of martyrs’ funerals, see Lori A. Allen, “The Polyvalent Politics of Martyr Commemorations in the Palestinian Intifada” History and Memory 18, no. 2 (2006): 107-138; special issue: Home and Beyond: Sites of Palestinian Memory.

[5] Interview with Om Tha’er, grandmother of the two young men, in 2019, three months after the second death, of 17-year-old Sajed Mizher.

[6] Philip Hopper notes the children’s identification with the martyrs, without, however, mentioning their personal relationship with them. “Beyond the Wall in Dheisheh Camp: From Local to Transnational Image-Making,” Pedagogy and the Theater of the Oppressed Journal 1 (article 7), https://scholarworks.uni.edu/ptoj/vol1/iss1/7

[7] Ronald Perry, “What is a Disaster?” in Havidán Rodríguez, Enrico L. Quarantelli, and Russel R. Dynes, ed. Handbook of Disaster Research (New York: Springer, 2006), 5-6.

[8] Ronald Grimes, “Ritualizing September 11,” Rite out of Place: Ritual, Media and the Arts (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 85-6.

[9] Ahmed Hmeedat, personal communication.

[10] Omar Hmidat, personal communication.


The written material this article is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Photos © Margaret Olin.

Recommended Citation: Olin, Margaret. (2021): “Faces of a Disaster,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 8. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu

Preaching During the Twin Pandemics of COVID-19 and Racism: A Conversation with Lisa Thompson and Andrew Wymer


(The transcription below has been significantly edited for length)

Mark Roosien: Hello, and welcome to a special conversation from the Yale ISM Review. I’m so pleased to be joined today by two distinguished guests, Reverend Dr. Lisa Thompson and Reverend Dr. Andrew Wymer. Today, I’m inviting Dr. Thompson and Dr. Wymer to have a conversation with me about preaching during disaster: specifically, the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism in American society. Lisa and Andrew, welcome.

Lisa Thompson: Thanks so much, Mark.

Andrew Wymer: Thank you.

MR: Lisa, both as a preacher and as a hearer, what are some things you’ve learned about pandemic preaching, and what kinds of things might you take away from this time as you prepare to enter  a post-COVID reality?

LT: I’ve learned that preaching is the same as it was pre-pandemic in some ways–and very different. There are some folks who are willing to pivot more than others, and some people who like doing the same thing over and over. But what I’ve learned most is that things work best when we are nimble, when we are willing to do something different and remember what we’re there for. So [for example] maybe this Sunday sermon or Saturday or Friday sermon isn’t the one-directional thing we usually do in the pulpit; but maybe it’s more of a dialogue. Maybe it’s more of a conversation or a story.

AW: I want to ask: whose pandemic are we talking about? Because this pandemic and its manifestations have been so unequal. As a researcher who tries to attend to whiteness critically, I’m engaging QAnon–a white supremacist ideology and conspiracy theory—and how that’s manifesting in preaching. And then I attend church and I hear messages of liberation and the pursuit of social justice for marginalized persons, and that’s also pandemic preaching! So there are different pandemics, different experiences of this pandemic.

This illustrates the intense moral and ethical flexibility of preaching—and it’s been that way through the history of our country—and the role of the preacher in casting a vision for society. It’s not just a theological or a spiritual vision, but also a political and economic and social vision for an alternative future.

MR: Lisa, in your book, Ingenuity: Preaching as an Outsider, you stress the importance of the body in the preaching event, both in terms of the community’s expectations of the preacher and their body, and also the preacher’s accountability to the lived experiences of the people in their embodied experience. And with Zoom church and restrictions on gathering, we’ve all had a lot less contact with other bodies both in our daily lives and also in the preaching event. So, to ask a two-part question, how does the screen-mediated reality of pandemic preaching affect the preacher in this work of seeking to address bodily experience, and what are some ways to connect?

LT: Yes, I talked a lot about the body, preaching being a bodily encounter. We do it through the body; it lands on the body; it is an embodied experience. It’s not just cognitive. So when I talk about the body, I’m really thinking about lived experiences: we are interpreted through our bodies every single day–when we walk on the street, as we live in the world. Just as Andrew said: whose pandemic? and which pandemic, or which endemic, is ongoing? This is a call for preachers to be aware of lived experiences for every single sermon.

I was shocked and not shocked when we moved into the pandemic and the question was, “What should we do? There’s a crisis afoot!” Well, some people have always lived in crisis. There are some lived experiences that we’ve had the privilege to not live in awareness of—whether that’s because of ableism, sexism, whatever our bodily experiences are—some people who actually live in crisis, all the time.

My call is for the preacher to be more aware of those lived experiences. So that does involve looking at the news, paying attention to what’s happening in the world, being in conversation with your congregants or friends, and other people. Broadening the table of who you’re in conversation with really helps the preacher remain accountable to the lived experiences on the ground. But the preacher also has to be clear about their ethical lens for preaching: what are we doing it for? What are we accountable to? And what are we here to promote? In talking to preachers, my go-to line is: What actually promotes life in the midst of our community and in our world, as opposed to hate and death?

MR: Andrew, one of the themes in your work is the notion of silence: paying attention to what is not said at the pulpit and paying attention to what preachers are silent about. Silence can be something that’s regenerative, but it can also be something that’s oppressive. So I’d like to ask you to speak a little bit about the social function of silence, both in preaching and even more broadly.

AW: I engage silence as an expression of language (folk, historically, generally have treated silence as a lack of language) and I emphasize it as language that’s embedded with a complex variety of meanings. Our social locations–the way that we’re embodied, the way that society puts us into certain boxes, the biases that are formed in us, our experiences—they inform how we hear and deploy silence.

This is intensely political: Who is silent? Who’s forced to be silent? Who is not heard or intentionally not heard? Who can choose to be silent based on a position of power?

A significant portion of my research has been focused on the impact of white supremacy on preaching. To get at that is difficult. The classic example of this is Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he says, the greatest stumbling block to civil rights is not the Ku Klux Klan or the white politician, it’s the silent—and I don’t think Dr. King used this language, but essentially—the silent white moderate.

So my work is focused on unpacking that silence, interpreting it, trying to listen to it as an expression of domination…White folk, who through white normativity and white privilege, haven’t had to listen to that, haven’t had to be aware of that.

Silence is not always silent. Silence can be very noisy. I think of the noise, just the collective noise, that’s been produced by white preaching over the last centuries in the context of our country, and yet [it’s] incredibly silent! There’s misdirection: you can have sermons on grace or love–even sermons on justice–that are actually misdirections away from a reckoning with, say, our racial formation and our racial identity and white supremacy.

LT: Jacqueline Woodson is a writer who has come up on the New York Times bestseller list in the past couple years, and she has a memoir called Brown Girl Dreaming. There’s a brief poem [in it] called “Silence.” And her premise is that there is a story, even in the silence, if you listen. So, as Andrew was talking about, silence is actually a language.

Whatever we perceive to be at stake either moves us to give voice or moves us to a place of empathy, or even outrage. I think part of the push is for preachers and communities of faith to recognize, to be more empathetic in their listening. Sometimes, yes, they need to be moved to silence, but also to be more empathetic, so they can actually move to voice on behalf of others or in conversation with others.

MR: Andrew, what are some of the things that preachers and congregations can do to create equity and equality in and from the pulpit?

AW: It’s very important to be humble about the limitations of the pulpit, the possibilities of the pulpit, and to understand the pulpit as existing holistically as part of a congregation’s life. In my context, particularly with white-dominant institutions and folk, we have to continually address the who that is in the pulpit, and we have to address the who that is in the pews.

We have to do this on a daily basis, uncovering the ways that we have been formed, since the very beginning of our lives, into patterns of domination. And as we address the who, we begin to address the communal who. Who are we? What are our commitments? Who are we preaching for?

I think this is the hardest work: uncovering the domination that’s formed inside of us, that’s working on a subconscious level oftentimes, shaping how we engage the congregation, shaping how the congregation engages the preacher, shaping how we engage God, shaping how we engage the biblical text.

This relates to any expression of domination: I mentioned race, but also gender, class, sexuality, ageism, ableism. Though as we do this, as we begin to address who we are, there’s the potential for the pulpit to be a resource in speaking into that conversation. And I think that the preacher can greatly help the process of uncovering domination, and then redirecting us, re-centering us, around more just futures.

It’s important for the preacher to have spiritual disciplines that engage how you’re embodied, and that they lead you, on a daily basis, to reckon with the ways you’re formed into domination.

It’s important professionally to sit and learn theology, hermeneutics, etc. from folk who are embodied differently. For many pastors and preachers, it’s not realistic to go back to seminary. But you can still buy a book and sit and learn from someone who is embodied differently and who has different experiences, different assumptions about the world.

Something I greatly encourage my students to do is to check the voices. Who are you bringing into the pulpit with you? Who are you centering in that moment? Do they all look like you? Are they embodied the same way as you? And are you not just tokenizing them, but are you truly letting them subvert your own embodiment and shape the structure of your message?

MR: I just have one last question for both of you and we’ll start with Lisa. This past year has not been easy for anybody, but it’s been harder for some folks more than others. And it’s not been easy for preachers! What are some ways that you would encourage preachers to take care of themselves, both personally and for excellence in their task?

LT: It’s not all on the preacher. If we’re willing to assess our theological assumptions about authority in preaching, there is a type of freedom that happens, and a type of loosening that can happen. If we can recognize that the onus of the preaching moment and the overall formation in the community is not solely on the preacher, it gives us a bit more freedom to be vulnerable, to be honest about when we need a break, what break we need, when we need additional conversation partners.

We have a colleague Richard Voelz who, during this season, has recommended to have people drop in to preach for you. Why do you have to tune into your service every week, you know? This is a chance for communities and congregations to come together. Get a break. Catch a break. Find a colleague who’s preaching and decide to do a shared worship encounter.

My honest encouragement is for people to really pay attention to what their bodies are telling them. I think that’s one of the things that we have not done well throughout the pandemic. We’ve not paid attention to when our bodies are screaming “no, no more!” but we’ve continued to push. So my greatest recommendation is to listen, and know when to take the break. We work better from rest than working to rest. Excellence in the practice does come from rest. We can’t do our best work when we’re constantly fatigued.

And finally, I’ll say, build a schedule! One of the saving graces for me has honestly been time-blocking my entire week. We can build in buckets of time for rest, for work–whether it’s preparation for the sermon or whatever the day-to-day task is. Seeing it on the calendar and on the schedule helps the preacher know that you’re actually working on it along the way. It might not be 10 hours today, but an hour yesterday or 30 minutes and it adds up.

AW: I resonate with a lot of what Lisa had to say. I want to go back to humility. My colleague Gennifer Brooks talks about humility as thinking of yourself rightly. You don’t think too highly of yourself–but also not too low of yourself. Humility can take expression in checking yourself, and also healthy boundaries, in recognizing limitations and caring for yourself: these can be acts of humility.

In this season, when many churches are wanting to add programming to the pastor’s responsibilities instead of taking away programming, to be strategic is very important. As much as possible, avoid self-laceration. You are not perfect. You are learning to do your best in a new medium, in intensely difficult circumstances. Don’t put that demand for perfection on yourself. Don’t let anyone else put that on you. And don’t wound yourself over where you have made mistakes or there’s slip-ups.

MR: I want to thank both of you for creating the space in your schedules for this conversation. On behalf of the Yale ISM Review, I hope you all have a great rest of the semester and thanks, once again, Dr. Lisa Thompson and Dr. Andrew Wymer.

LT: Thank you so much for the invitation. It was so good to be here with both of you.

AW: Thank you, Mark, and thank you, Lisa, as well.


Lisa L. Thompson is Associate Professor of Black Homiletics and Liturgics at the Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion of Vanderbilt University. She holds a Doctor of Philosophy and a Master of Arts in Religion from Vanderbilt University, and prioritizes discussing the ways religion can be used for the destruction or uplift of our life together. Her most recent publication is entitled Ingenuity: Preaching as an Outsider (Fall 2018); her book Preaching the Headlines releases in Fall 2021 with Fortress Press.  Full bio available here: https://divinity.vanderbilt.edu/people/bio/lisa-l-thompson.

Andrew Wymer serves as assistant professor of liturgical studies at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and he is an ordained Baptist (ABCUSA) minister. Wymer’s research engages liturgical and homiletical theory and practice with attention to race and social justice, and he is the author of articles in the International Journal of Homiletics, Liturgy, Practical Matters, and Worship. https://www.garrett.edu/academics/faculty/andrew-wymer


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Thompson, Lisa L., Andrew Wymer, and Mark Roosien (2021): “Preaching During the Twin Pandemics of COVID-19 and Racism: A Conversation with Lisa Thompson and Andrew Wymer,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 7. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu.

Bold Humility: Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in White-Dominant Churches

The first sermon I preached as Pastor/Head of Staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (GCPC) in Asheville, NC was on Sunday, July 10, 2016.  That was four days after Philando Castile was murdered by police in a traffic stop in St. Paul, Minnesota, in front of his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter. 

It had been an intense few years for my family leading up to our arrival at GCPC. While I had been doing anti-racism work as a consultant, pastor, and scholar for many years, our level of personal stake and risk had recently spiked as a family. My husband and I had become advocates for the rights of collegiate revenue athletes, particularly around issues of race. John, my husband, had been a football coach in the NFL and at the Division I collegiate level for twenty-six years. His firing at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and at Purdue University were highly public events.[1]

The reputation we brought with us to GCPC is important to note in any exploration of how this remarkable congregation has embraced the work of dismantling white supremacy culture in the church.  The church knew they had called a pastor who does not shy away from the most difficult issues facing our society. They knew my family is willing to risk ourselves, our livelihood, our income, and our comfort to fight this fight on a national scale. What they may not have fully anticipated was their own capacity to join in that work with their whole selves.

My family and the church were all risking and stretching in this new relationship we had covenanted to have with each other.  Any conversation about how churches can do this work must start here, on a visceral, gut level. If you are not willing to take risks and call on your community to be courageous, then the work of confronting white supremacy will go nowhere. That first sermon at GCPC was a full immersion into the work of dismantling white supremacy culture together. The Holy Spirit woke me from my sleep the night before I was to deliver it and provoked me to rewrite it.  The lectionary passage was Luke 10: 25-37, the Good Samaritan. I could have preached a generic sermon, and eased the church into the work as we got to know each other. The Spirit did not let me off so easy. I knew that my own vulnerability was required. I called the church to a disposition of “bold humility,” using our need for healing from white supremacy as the presenting problem:

White culture has distorted our shared humanity and our full humanity because it formed us with an expectation of safety and self-protection.  White culture has tried to tell us we can erase our vulnerability, our grief, our fragility, our uniqueness, our idiosyncrasy—and from this attempted erasure we have learned repetitive, dehumanizing habits. We are habituated to ask, “How can we help?” But rarely do we ask, “How can we change?  How can we BE the change?”  White supremacy is a powerful demon that must be exorcised.  This does not mean all white people are bad, this means the culture spawned by white supremacy is a disease that afflicts us all—it permeates our instincts, our muscle twitches, our gut reactions, our intimacy, our self-understanding. Jesus, help us, help us not be afraid to tell you the truth of our affliction. We are naked, we are afraid.[2]

The last four and a half years have grown from there. Four aspects of bold humility have defined how the work has continued: following the Spirit’s lead; sharing vulnerability; believing in the congregation’s capacity to do the work; and being willing to respond consistently to both their resistance and their willingness to go deeper. 

The first thing required in any congregation in order for the work of dismantling white supremacy to take hold is for those with formal power in the system to center the work as the most important work the church is called to do.[3] I am grateful for the way God has given me colleagues to strengthen me in this work. In my first months in Asheville, I became a part of the newly forming “Faith 4 Justice, Asheville” led by AME Zion Pastor, the Rev. Tami Forte-Logan. That collective has been a source of clarity and strength in my work and in GCPC’s work. We support each other in finding the energy and courage to keep centering the work of healing the most primary disease that afflicts our bodies, our churches, and our culture.

Dismantling white supremacy impacts every layer of our institutional and communal life. Three areas where this work has taken hold in the life of GCPC may provide support for other faith communities yearning for a path to go deeper:  worship, systems, and partnerships.

Worship

GCPC is a low anxiety church in ways that are uncommon in the Presbyterian Church. Things like changing the doxology or moving the baptismal font to a different location in the sanctuary do not create panic in this congregation. That was true before I arrived.  Leaning in to that willingness to be adaptive and spontaneous has been a great asset. Every worship service brings new opportunities for creativity, spiritual idiosyncrasy, embodiment, adaptivity, and nurturing relationships.  Worship has been the collective space where we practice sharing power and leaning into God’s healing opportunities.

The church embraced the embodied worship practices I invited them to try. Embodied practices in worship grow out of my constructive theological work.[4]  But these practices take a willing community to become transformative. We have shared some beautiful and vulnerable moments in worship.[5]  For example, in the Fall of 2019 our theme was “The Eucharistic Life” which involved celebrating Eucharist every Sunday instead of once a month.[6] Every week we experimented with new ways of gathering at the Lord’s Table. And we explored how Eucharist is a way of life, not simply a liturgical practice.[7]

GCPC worship is full of disruptions and adaptations. The congregation is called into participation during any and every part of the service, including sermons and the serving of Communion. Children and youth participate in leadership every week. We share information through skits that bring playfulness and congregational participation. We lean into the gifts of the rhythms of Reformed worship, while claiming the ways the Spirit moves us to try new things.

That trust in how God is present in both tradition and creativity has carried over into our COVID 19 experience. Our online worship every Sunday is live, not pre-recorded. We have invested time, resources, and creativity in cultivating strong connections and congregational participation. The church is growing and thriving. This style of pandemic worship is actually dismantling white supremacy culture in real time by disrupting either/or thinking, perfectionism, and “one-right-way” mentalities that are endemic to white-dominant churches. All of these worship practices generate shared visceral data about what sharing power looks like, feels like, tastes like, and sounds like. We have become more habituated and susceptible to sharing power because we experience it in the context of worship every week.

Worship at GCPC is also characterized by an embrace of prophetic preaching. This church has shed the false equivalencies that can hold pastors hostage in the pulpit. Many churches equate prophetic preaching with “getting political.” This false equivalency is code language for normalizing keeping the powerful comfortable. When this shaming around “getting political” surfaces at GCPC, I happily engage it as an opportunity to unpack the aversion we have to tension and discomfort in white churches. And I use it as a teaching moment about our civic responsibility as disciples of Jesus Christ. The political boundary in churches is that they cannot endorse political candidates, not that we don’t provoke difficult discussions on political issues.

Systems 

The administrative layers of the church have been transformed this last four and a half years as well. Together we created clear descriptions of roles, leadership rotation, and healthy boundaries. Each Council collaboratively created its own charter to create accountability practices around sharing power. These charters are a direct challenge to the impulse that whiteness teaches us to hoard power and tolerate institutional inertia in order to protect the status quo.

White supremacy has long been embedded in the ways churches make decisions, deal with conflict and tension, spend resources, and deploy energy. Intentional practices to disrupt these habits are present in every meeting at GCPC. We ground our practices of sharing power in spiritual growth. We use “mutual invitation” to listen and discern, instead of debating and voting.[8] Mutual invitation helps to calm the collective nervous system in high stakes conversations, and diffuses the sense of urgency that white supremacy teaches us. Change moves not at the speed of pressure, but at the speed of trust.[9]  The leading edge in these practices of power sharing is found in the ways we are learning to hold each other accountable. There is joy and transformation in this new-found freedom of being authentic with each other.

A central part of cultivating this freedom early on was in the way  bullying and triangulation, along with clutches of power, were disrupted in the church.  The work of dismantling white supremacy culture in the church requires that the church not succumb to the pressure of wealthy donors who use their giving as a weapon to silence the work. At GCPC we lost some donors at the beginning, but we have gained more in the long run. The spirituality of this work includes trusting that God’s hand is in it and will provide what the community needs to truly thrive.  

Partnerships

GCPC has steadily moved away from a charitable model of community outreach toward a partnership model, informed by the practices required to cultivate racial equity and mutual transformation. This shift is most clearly visible in the work of our Serve Council, the Council of the Session who makes decisions about the disbursement of what used to be called “mission” dollars. While this shift remains a work in progress, there have been tangible changes along the way that have made GCPC a more trustworthy partner for BIPOC-led collectives. Serve Council partnerships now have more energy deployed toward building relationships and trust. GCPC comes alongside our partners not simply with funding support, but with other resources like free use of our building for meetings and events.

GCPC has been nurturing multiple circles and collectives of discernment around questions of reparation and collective liberation. Faith 4 Justice Asheville and Saving Ourselves (SOS), two Black-led organizations, are now embedded in the GCPC community as our fiscal sponsorees and as trusted colleagues in this work. These fiscal sponsorships include the full wrap-around support of our systems and structures. And these relationships and partnerships are built on the work of mutual liberation that we are doing together. In particular, GCPC’s mutual partnership with Faith 4 Justice has been one that has deepened, as relationship and trust have deepened. Rev. Forte-Logan has led transformational work with our Session, Serve Council, staff and congregation. And she has become a close and trusted colleague of mine as well.

In 2020, Serve Council also designated thirteen Black and Brown-led organizations as “Covenant Partners” to receive more funding and more focus on relationship building.  These intentional partnerships are built on GCPC’s own internal work to dismantle white supremacy, and on our growing awareness of the harm that white churches often do in transactional relationships with impacted communities. A Long-Range Building Visioning Team is exploring the next phase of life for our building. The process is moving toward cultivating a decision-making process that involves BIPOC partners at the decision-making table. This process is actively working to disrupt decision making in which those most impacted by decisions have the least power in making the decisions.

We are using new muscles to support each other as we breathe and push through these deep transformations. We are learning how to grieve together more deeply. We are learning about our own trauma and the things that white supremacy has diminished in our lives.

COVID 19 has only enhanced this work.  We are even more resolved to keep doing this work. The church has put its heart and soul into this transformative work. We believe that mutual vulnerability is the path to mutual liberation. We are not yearning to “get back to normal.”  We are amazed at all the transformation happening in our midst as we move into a future we could have barely imagined just a few years ago.


The Rev. Dr. Marcia W. Mount Shoop (MDiv Vanderbilt, PhD Emory University) is Pastor/Head of Staff at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC. She is an author, facilitator, theologian, and radio show host. Mount Shoop is the author of Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP) and Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (Cascade). She co-authored A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White Dominant Churches (Cascade) with Mary McClintock-Fulkerson. Mount Shoop has also contributed chapters on embodiment, race, and trauma to several anthologies. She co-hosts a radio show for Blue Ridge Public Radio, “Going Deep: Sports in the 21st Century” with her husband, John. You can learn more about her work at www.marciamountshoop.com

[1] I have written about our experience in football on my blog at www.marciamountshoop.com and in my book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports  (Cascade, 2014). A story appeared in the New York Times after John’s firing at Purdue University and John is also the coach featured in the HBO documentary “Student-Athlete,” with Lebron James as the Executive Producer. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/05/sports/ncaafootball/purdue-fires-a-champion-of-athletes-rights.html  One of the places our stances were articulated has been our radio show and podcast, Going Deep: Sports in the 21st Century. It is currently a program that runs on Blue Ridge Public Radio, NPR for Western North Carolina. Previous to our coming to Asheville, we produced the show at the studios of WBAA, the NPR station in West Lafayette, IN. https://shoopsgoingdeep.com/  and https://www.bpr.org/post/going-deep-sports-21st-century#stream/0

[2] Sermon, “Go and Be Likewise,” preached at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, Sunday, July 10, 2016.

[3] Tema Okun’s document entitled “Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” has been a great resource for me through the years in this work. https://www.dismantlingracism.org/uploads/4/3/5/7/43579015/okun_-_white_sup_culture.pdf

[4] Mount Shoop, Marcia W, Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ (WJKP, 2010). 

[5] “Holy Is the Silence and Holy is the Sound” is a song I learned while participating in Interplay in Raleigh, NC.

[6] McClintock-Fulkerson, Mary and Marcia W. Mount Shoop, A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory, and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches (Cascade, 2015).

[7]I have written a chapter about this experience in the forthcoming book, The T & T Clark Handbook  to Sacraments and Sacramentality, edited by Martha Moore-Keish and James Farwell . The chapter is entitled, “Healing Eucharist: Excavating the Table’s Delusion and Redemption in White Dominant Church

[8] Mutual invitation is a discursive process that habituates sharing power, devout listening, and honest sharing. Through the years I have adapted the practices I learned from Eric Law about mutual invitation. His explanation can be found in his book, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb (Chalice Press, 1993).

[9] adrienne marie brown describes this beautiful rhythm of change moving at the speed of trust in her book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press, 2017).


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Mount Shoop, Marcia W. (2021): “Bold Humility: Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in White-Dominant Churches,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 6. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu.

Music as Embodied Memory in a Time of Crisis

In the documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett follows social workers who use music to unlock memory and restore a sense of self in persons afflicted with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Among the many people whose stories he chronicles in the film is Henry, a ninety-four-year-old man living with dementia. We first encounter Henry hunched over in his chair as if he is sleeping, unresponsive to questions from his caregiver and unable to recognize even his own daughter when she enters the room. He struggles so hard to remember her and say her name, but he just cannot place her.

A few moments later, his caregiver carefully places headphones on Henry’s ears and presses play on the iPod to which they are attached, starting one of Henry’s favorite songs, “Goin’ up Yonder,” an old Gospel tune he sang in church when he was young.

The music begins and instantly everything changes. No longer hunched over, Henry is now upright in his chair. No longer tightly closed, his eyes are now wide open, darting back and forth. Singing, smiling, riffing, moving to the music, remembering every word and nuance, Henry wakes up. 

Even when the song ends and the caretaker removes the headphones, Henry’s newfound alertness continues as the therapist asks him a series of questions. Henry, what does music do to you? “It gives me a feeling of love. I feel the band of love, of dreams. The Lord came to me, made me holy, I’m a holy man. He gave me these sounds.”

When I saw Henry change before my eyes in the film, I heard in a new way one of the most repeated commands in scripture—the command to sing:

“Sing to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”

“Sing and make music from the heart to your Lord.”

“In the assembly, sing God’s praises.”

“Sing to God, tell of God’s wonderful acts.”

“Sing to the Lord a new song.”

I think we glimpse in Henry’s eyes why God so insists on our song. When all has passed away, when we cannot even recognize a child or a partner seated in front of us, we can still recognize a song. Music does what even the most coveted prescription drug and the most cutting-edge clinical trial cannot: it revives a part of us that to others seems dead. It floods us with memories from the past that reawaken us in the present.

Here in the eyes of Henry is vivid confirmation of the ways that shared music-making helps the human body remember, long after it seems all has been forgotten. “Anyone who has worked with Alzheimer’s patients knows that often the last way of bringing a person a present is to sing for them (and with them) songs from their childhood,” writes Don Saliers of his own lived experience. “This itself is a kind of metaphor for the deeper power of music to encode life, and to make it present—even in the face of cognitive diminishment.”[1]

Shared music-making has the capacity to form the deepest contours of our communal memory. This is perhaps why the apostle Paul encouraged early Christians to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God (Colossians 3:16). Paul knew what any of us who can recall all the lyrics to our favorite songs know. He knew what all of us who can’t get that advertising jingle out of our head know. He knew what Henry knows: music anchors language in our hearts even as it signals the limits of language alone.  

This remarkable connection between music and memory has pushed me beyond tired debates about what style of music we should sing, beyond narrow arguments about whether we should use organs, guitars, praise bands, or no instruments at all. It has pushed me beyond these questions because it is helping me to realize that more is required of those of us charged with the responsibility of shaping communal song than policing narrow boundaries around the sounds through which God is made audible to God’s people, boundaries that are often predetermined by our own aesthetic biases and musical training.

While music spills into every area of our lives, our churches are places that house the practice of singing in a privileged way. And the power of music to encode things even when all else has fallen away confronts me with a deeper sense of the weight of what we do when we invite people to join in song. It reminds me that the songs I choose and the songs I write often remain deep within people long after they’re sung. It reminds me that singing is the embodied memory of the church.

In this moment of overlapping world crises, being a steward of the musical memory of a community takes on new urgency.

The present pandemic lays bare the extent to which we as a church have nurtured musical memories that might provide a sufficiently expansive theological vocabulary to respond to the profound traumas we now face. For all of the creative and thoughtful ways in which worship leaders have re-imagined the shape of Christian worship in a virtual space, one of the practices that so far cannot be reproduced in any meaningful way is the practice of singing together. And so the musical fragments we laid (or failed to lay) in the hearts of our communities before our separation from one another are the theological fragments our communities did (or did not) take with them into this period of isolation.

As we await the time when it is safe for us to gather and sing together once again, I find myself taking time to contemplate the theological gaps in my own repertoire, and longing for a richer grammar of lament, rage, and anguish, one that can bear the weight of the communal trauma we are currently experiencing. I find myself craving musical memories not only of hymns that tell us not to be afraid or that God is good, but also musical memories that can hold our fear and our woundedness as holy and true.

The intensifying white nationalism and the resurgence of overt antiblack racism in the United States has invited distinct but related questions about whose musical memories we anchor in the hearts of our communities. Discerning music for public worship—whether as a composer or as a publisher or as a church music director—is an act of profound power. Too often we leave that power unexamined. And as in many things in Western culture, that act of power is often centered on Western assumptions, aesthetics, and ideals that quietly become normative.

Whether we realize it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, our hymns are filtered through the particularity of the experiences and artistry of their author. And so the fine print in our hymnals, worship bulletins, and music planning sheets with the names of the composers that comprise our core repertoire testify to whose voices, whose memories we continue to center. Our hymns also tell us whose voices and whose memories are absent. And so I find myself newly attentive to  the ways in which these seemingly ephemeral artifacts  reveal whose communal memory matters, and whose does not.

Embracing the growing body of hymnody centered on justice and inclusion predominantly written by white composers, for example, unaccompanied by an examination of the relative absence of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian composers, risks betraying the deepest impulses of the very justice and inclusion of which we sing. It reifies the very logics we want to resist.

Confronting what memories we admit or what memories we deny in our repertoires is not where our work must end. And the work each of us must do will take a different shape, depending on our own proximity to privilege and the particularities of our own context. But it is a worthy place to begin.

Long before our present struggles, Pope Francis spoke more presciently than he could have anticipated about the need for the church to be what he calls a field hospital after battle, a church concerned with nearness and proximity, a church centered on healing wounds.[2] Music ministers are often on the frontlines of that field hospital: accompanying the grieving, celebrating with the marrying, and simply marking the sacred moments of daily life in song.

As we continue to confront the deep wounds of the world, I invite us to think of Henry: what you and I and the people with whom we work and pray remember about God even when all else has passed away is often in our hands. Our musical vocabulary shapes memories and anchors fragments of faith over a lifetime. And so if the words and melodies you and I anchor on people’s hearts are ones that will accompany people to their graves, we must ask ourselves: What should those words and notes be and why? What vocabulary do we offer them and about what do we remain silent? Whose musical memories do we center and whose do we erase? What might we need to give up to make space for what is not yet?


Antonio (Tony) Alonso is a Cuban-American Roman Catholic theologian and a Latin Grammy-nominated composer whose work responds to the diverse needs of the contemporary church. His first monograph, Commodified Communion: Eucharist, Consumer Culture, and the Practice of Everyday Life (Fordham University Press, 2021) offers a theological account of contemporary consumerism and its relationship to the Eucharist. Tony is Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Candler School of Theology at Emory University where he also serves as its inaugural Director of Catholic Studies. Website: www.tonyalonso.com

[1] Don E. Saliers, Music and Theology (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007). 6.

[2] Antonio Spadardo, “A Big Heart Open to God,” America Magazine, September 30, 2013, http://americamagazine.org/pope-interview.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Alonso, Tony. (2021): “Music as Embodied Memory in a Time of Crisis,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 5. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu.

Building Communities of Song in Online Spaces

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I cried as I watched videos of quarantined neighbors singing “Bella Ciao” together on balconies across Italian streets and alleyways. Voices reached for one another, meeting and mixing, filling towns and cities with song. I marveled at this musical response to isolation, pain, and fear as we were just beginning our lockdown in New York. Singing together reminds us that we are not alone.

People have long used singing and music-making to feel connected to one another. Studies highlight the positive impact of singing with others: group singing produces feelings of belonging, happiness, and inclusion.[1] When we sing together, our bodies synchronize and our hearts literally beat as one.[2] This bonding occurs in many social contexts: “The Star Spangled Banner” or “O, Canada” can trigger feelings of belonging in citizens just as singing along at a Beyoncé concert can make audience members feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, no longer isolated individuals but members of a community.

This is also true in religious communities. The music we use in our worship services does more than just catechize or beautify; singing bonds us together as people in communion, as one body.[3] Christian ritual is social in nature, and this is reflected in the language of many of the oldest liturgical texts, in which the first-person plural pronoun “we” appears throughout the prayers and praises of the clergy and the congregation.

But the COVID-19 crisis forced many religious communities to limit or even halt in-person group singing. Many communities have adopted new technologies in order to reach community members in remote settings. This paper explores some of the strengths and weaknesses of two common formats, from my perspective as a music educator and researcher: livestreamed religious services and Zoom gatherings.

Although a streamed service can provide remote worshippers with a sense of connection to their community, its one-directional format offers limited opportunities for community members to engage with one another. Drawing on the philosophies of Martin Buber and Alfred Schütz, I will suggest that interactive Zoom gatherings rooted in the musical activities of sharing, listening, and responding offer unique opportunities to encounter others in meaningful and transformative ways.

In an effort to bring people together for worship and prayer, some religious communities have chosen to livestream their services during the pandemic. This entails broadcasting a video feed of a service, often celebrated by a smaller congregation, or perhaps even just a priest and a single cantor. The video feed is broadcast on the Internet, so it can be accessed at home or on the go. Church services continue through the liturgical calendar, albeit with a largely empty building and only a few voices singing the collective “we.” Church members at home may take comfort in hearing familiar voices, prayers, and hymns, and may even sing along. Watching other members participate in the service can remind at-home viewers of important rituals, connect them with spiritual experiences, and maintain the liturgical rhythms of the week and year.

But what is missing when I “tune in” for a service? I may respond to the prayers and songs, but my response is not heard by the rest of the congregation. I can sing, but no one sees or hears me. Moisés Sbardelotto, a scholar interested in the intersection of digital culture and religion, has suggested that transferring liturgical services to online streaming may transform rites from meaningful, embodied actions into “mere spectacles,” differently affecting both those tuning in and those who lead services.[4] Streaming can be understood as an attempt to share the experience of church with those who cannot be present—but it can also reinforce our separation from one another.

What is missing from livestreamed services is the reciprocal nature of encounter. “All real living is meeting,” writes Martin Buber.[5] The stories of our faith are filled with meetings: meetings with God and meetings with one another. These “genuine encounters” shift our view of ourselves in the world and move us into dialogic spaces where we recognize others, consider others, value others. In a dialogic encounter, we come to know others, but we also come to know ourselves more deeply, more truly. To paraphrase Buber, the only way for me to know I am an “I” is to know that you are a “You.” Without interaction at this interpersonal level, we risk misrecognizing other people as objects and remaining within the shell of our protective egoistic self. We and they are, perhaps, diminished, not as fully human.

As a musician and educator who has broadcast livestreamed events to unseen “audiences” during the pandemic, I have often felt disconnected and disoriented. I am accustomed to hearing, responding to, and learning from others’ voices. As a conductor, I find myself craving the usual collaboration with singers that now goes unfulfilled when I broadcast a conducting gesture that only anticipates and never responds. So, how do we engage the individuals in our communities through the screen in an interactive, relational way to realize a more complete human experience?

Singing virtually together may bridge the real distance between people and the one-sidedness felt in livestreamed services. But it requires us to reintroduce the concept of music as dialogue into the online gathering. While we are living in this in-between time, when we cannot all worship, sing, or pray together, virtual or remote singing offers one way of experiencing the kind of encounter, the kind of meeting, that Martin Buber encourages us to seek. When people join the same meeting through a video conferencing platform like Zoom and sing together from their remote locations, a deep communion may form that can serve as a supplement or alternative to the less-relational viewing of streamed services.

At its core, singing with others is a form of communication, where we listen, receive, and join together.  In his influential essay, “Making Music Together,”[6] sociologist and philosopher Alfred P. Schütz argued that shared music making is intrinsically a form of dialogical encounter.  Drawing on Martin Buber’s philosophy, Schütz observed a string quartet’s ways of interacting while playing together, noting how the process of making sound together in time transformed the group. The musicians appeared to enter and share each other’s conscious experience of time, “growing older together while the musical process lasts.”[7]

Schütz suggested that, through musical activities like attentive listening, creating a musical sound together, and acknowledging other musicians through body language, musicians engage in a form of reciprocal communication that fosters connection. He described this unique social relationship as a mutual tuning-in relationship. Virtual singing through a platform like Zoom makes it possible for individuals to meet online and engage in this mutual tuning-in relationship, to encounter one another in sound, and to experience togetherness.

However, Zoom is, in many ways, a terrible platform for communal singing.[8] Latency issues create delays in sound, so your voice can take seconds to come out of my speakers. This makes singing together unpredictable and difficult, creating a jarring sonic experience. When many people are unmuted in a Zoom meeting, Zoom’s algorithms select only a few voices from the full texture, making it impossible to hear every voice sounding together at the same time. Individual microphones on devices often distort sound. Internet connections can be unreliable, which can cause people to freeze or simply disappear. It is a messy affair.

Choral directors, if they use Zoom for music-making, may choose to keep singers muted most of the time to avoid this chaos, inviting them to sing along to a prerecorded track or to a single singer on the call. This type of group online singing is a little better than a livestream—I can see you and you can see me—but we are not truly in dialogue if one side of the conversation is muted.

In practice, what is it like to sing dialogically in this environment? This fall, I formed a non-auditioned community choir of ten adult singers from across the country, who gathered weekly over Zoom as part of a research project (Zoom was the best option for us to use, given our financial, technological, and geographical constraints). I played it safe in our first rehearsal; I sang while the rest of the singers sang along on mute, and we talked about the possibility of creating virtual choir performances in the future.[9]

But the singers were longing to sing with each other at the same time in a way that felt familiar and immediate. “It’s sort of weird sitting here and hearing just myself,” Lisa, a soprano, said with a smirk.[10] When we all unmuted our microphones and tried to sing the same pitch together, there was a mix of confusion, joy, and concentration on the faces in my Zoom gallery view. We could not hear a blend of sound like we would if we were gathered in a choir loft; at most, we could hear three voices at a time, and the Zoom algorithm was constantly shifting whose voices we heard.

We realized that our singing online would not be like singing in person. That was a difficult realization, but it was also a turning point. We started to think less about what we couldn’t do and began to think more about what we wanted to prioritize. We moved ahead, emphasizing participation over perfection.

We started small at first—singing individual lines of a song, passing around solos. The pleasure of hearing a voice like Anthony’s—a rumbling, rich baritone so different from my own voice—brought tears to my eyes. From there, we sang slow-moving harmonies unmuted, allowing the edges of the chords to bleed over into one another. Singers complimented one another with exclamations like “I heard you—that was beautiful!” People started bringing instruments like guitars, improvising echoes and duets, and rewriting lyrics as a way to meditate on the grief and loss in their lives.

Sometimes, though, the musical and technical approaches we tried fell short. There were times we could not hear one another, times when computers froze, and times when a piece just flopped. But it was acceptable in this context because we were not looking for perfection. We were looking for connection. Singing together in this emergent online community served to remind us that we were not alone.

Despite its many challenges for live singing, Zoom became a space for healing in ways that mere livestreaming could not be: for listening, for sharing, for joy—for being in relationship with others in a time of great trauma, loss, and uncertainty. Mary Chayko, an interdisciplinary scholar whose work focuses on how technology builds social life, describes online meeting places like these as sociomental spaces.[11] Sociomental connections occur between people who do not or cannot meet in one another’s physical presence, resulting in what Chayko calls sociomental bonds. These bonds are not inferior to those created in physical meetings:

They are the manifestation of an absolutely genuine and often deeply felt sense that, despite physical separation, a closeness among people, a nearness, exists; that while the physical distance separating people may be great, the social distance between them may be very small indeed. They represent an experience of communion with another person, one that does not depend on face-to-face meetings to be initiated or maintained.[12]

Chayko insists that powerful encounters need not be limited by our remote physical locations or our isolation.

 Encountering one another via Zoom can happen (and is happening) in many ways, which are not necessarily musical. “Reaching to the other,” in the words of Buber, can happen in study groups, small group meetings, and fireside chats—anywhere dialogue and relationship occur. We might boldly reimagine our online church as something more interactive than streamed services, as a setting where people are seen, heard, and recognized.

Or perhaps we continue livestreaming services but develop parallel online spaces for listening and relationship building. Some communities host virtual “coffee hours” on Sundays after the conclusion of their livestreamed service, allowing people a chance to see and chat with one another as they might in a church fellowship hall, where friends smile and laugh as they catch up on the week’s events while children gallop around.

The logistics of arranging and moderating these online gatherings need not fall on the shoulders of the pastor or music leader (who are probably already approaching burnout by this point in the pandemic, even if they have been quiet about it). Communities may choose to develop an internet ministry team to facilitate online meetings, offer tech support, and help new members enter online spaces. Even when we are able to return to in-person gatherings, there will still be members of our communities (as there always have been) who cannot physically attend services due to age, health, or disabilities. For those who will still find themselves on the outside looking in, perhaps internet ministry teams can continue to facilitate relationship-building online.     

Time will tell whether our various digital gatherings will continue once the pandemic ends, but it’s certain that our need for human connection will remain. Singing together and responding to one another reinforces and builds community, and this can happen online  as well as in person. The digital spaces we create now for dialogue, whether musical or non-musical, have the potential to draw us into deeper relationships with one another, and the social bonds we create in these intimate, sociomental spaces are real and meaningful, strengthening and supporting us. Singing together—however imperfectly—reminds us that we are not alone.


Robin Freeman (M.M., M.Ed.) is a choral conductor, singer, and music educator. Her research explores social dimensions of group singing and how choral music can be a conduit for societal change. In 2020, she organized an international virtual music conference that brought together hundreds of practitioners, researchers, and pedagogues. She is currently completing an Ed.D. in College Teaching of Music at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she is examining how choral experiences for adult singers—including the popular “virtual choir”—can become more collaborative and transformative.  www.robinjfreeman.com

[1] Hilary Moss et al., “Exploring the Perceived Health Benefits of Singing in a Choir: An International Cross-Sectional Mixed-Methods Study,” Perspectives in Public Health 138, no. 3 (May 2018): 160–68.

[2] Viktor Müller et al., “Cardiac and Respiratory Patterns Synchronize between Persons during Choir Singing,” PLOS ONE 6, no. 9 (2011): e24893.

[3] Robin J. Freeman, “’With One Voice and One Heart:’ Choral Singing as Embodied Ecclesiology,” Journal of the International Society for Orthodox Church Music 4, no. 1 (June 2020): 118–127.

[4] Moisés Sbardelotto, “The (Re)Discovery of the Digital Environment for Living and Communicating the Faith,” in The Distanced Church: Reflections on Doing Church Online, ed. Heidi A Campbell. (College Station: Digital Religion Publications, 2020), 75.

[5] See Martin Buber, I and Thou. Translated with prologue and notes by W. Kaufmann. (New York: Scribner, 1970), 23.

[6] Alfred Schütz, “Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship,” Social Research 18, no. 1 (March 1951): 76–97.

[7] Schütz, “Making Music,” 93.

[8] It is, however, a relatively easy platform to use and has advanced audio settings which improve the online music making experience. There is lower-latency audio software available that can be paired with Zoom, but not all choirs will have the logistical and financial capacity to use these solutions (see how C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective utilizes Jamulus; Ian Howell’s ongoing work with SoundJack; or Stanford University’s development of JackTrip and beta testing of Virtual Studio). Regardless of the hardware and software, home internet speed and service can always cause unexpected disruptions and disconnections.

[9] The “virtual choir” is a form of music-making made popular by American composer Eric Whitacre, in which individual musicians in an ensemble self-record and submit an audio or video file to someone who mixes, masters, and produces a final “performance” of the entire group.

[10] Singers have been given pseudonyms.

[11] Mary Chayko, Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002).

[12] Chayko, Connecting, 1–2.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Freeman, Robin J. (2021): “Building Communities of Song in Online Spaces,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 4. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu.

Jewish Liturgical Responses to the Roman Destruction of the Temple

Until its destruction, the Jerusalem Temple was the religious center of Jewish life. It was there that hereditary priests and levites offered the daily elaborate, covenant-maintaining sacrificial worship commanded by God in the Torah (Pentateuch). Individual Jews, even from afar, participated vicariously through their annual half-shekel tax (Ex 31:13-16) and by local gatherings when “their priests” took their turn (m. Taan. 3). Crowds gathered for the three annual pilgrimage festivals; others offered personal sacrifices when possible– in thanksgiving, or for purification, including from sins.[1]

In the summer of 70 CE,  the Romans utterly destroyed the entire edifice as they quashed the Judean revolt. After the failure  of a second revolt in 135 CE, the Romans banished Jews from the city and built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. Because Deuteronomy 12 limited sacrificial worship to “the place which God will choose,” understood as Jerusalem, legitimate worship of God could not simply be transferred to another location. The depths of the existential crisis created cannot be overstated. It is the ḥurban, destruction, worse than the Holocaust. A well-known rabbinic teaching imagines the world as a three-legged stool, with the legs being Torah, worship, and acts of lovingkindness (m. Avot 1:2). The loss of the Temple’s worship thus had a broad destabilizing impact. Jews probably shared with their Greco-Roman neighbors an understanding that civilization’s stability depended on cultic worship. Christian memory is that the Romans persecuted early Christians precisely for threatening the state’s stability by refusing to participate in the Roman civic cults.[2]

The Romans did destroy the Judean state, but not the Jews and their relationship to their God. We know little about immediate Jewish responses to the tragedy except from rabbinic teachings dating from the third century onwards.[3] They record that Judaism retooled as an interim measure, expecting a divine salvific intervention to restore the nation and its worship system. These teachings formed the Jewish memory of this disaster and ongoing Jewish responses to it. Memories of the Temple and hopes for its restoration became central themes of the rabbinic system, especially its rituals. Only as nineteenth-century Jews became citizens in Christian lands did theological reforms and secularism recast this disaster as progress.

The rabbinic system encoded ritual responses in three main modes: salvage, ritualized mourning, and eschatological hope.

Salvage

The third-century rabbinic texts record that one of the first acts of the surviving rabbis after Temple sacrifices ceased was to determine possible points of continuity. Which non-sacrificial Temple rituals could persist, at least with some modification?

Thus, while Tabernacles celebrations with the palm branch (lulav) had taken place all seven days of the festival in the Temple but only one day outside it, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai ruled that the seven day celebration should now be universal. The rabbis debated where the ram’s horn (shofar) may be blown now when the New Year falls on the Sabbath: anywhere, at any rabbinic court, or only at the central court in Yavneh (m. RH 4:1-3)? Similarly, they ruled that priests should continue to bless the people (Nu 6:22-27) but in diminished form, as three separate blessings, substituting for God’s real name, and only raising their hands to shoulder height (m. Sotah 7:6).

Mosaics from 4th-6th century synagogue floors show that Temple symbols like these remained symbolically important. Indeed, the Temple’s seven-branched candelabrum (menorah), whether functional or depicted, was the primary symbol of Jews until the nineteenth century.[4]

Mosaic from the Hammat Tiberias synagogue floor. Tamar Mekom, Pikiwiki Israel. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

The rabbis taught a liturgical system that fulfilled the most important functions of Temple rituals but in new, purely verbal forms. They expected universal Jewish participation in daily verbal prayer, corresponding to the times of the lost Temple’s sacrifices (m. Ber. 4:1, 3) and fulfilling their covenantal function. However, references to sacrificial worship and requests to restore it appear only scattered throughout the larger system of prayer. Every service pleads that God be satisfied with verbal worship as a substitute for sacrifices; the preliminary morning liturgy includes study passages about sacrifices.

On holidays, this becomes a more dominant theme. Biblical passages commanding the day’s sacrifice are read from the Torah as well as focusing the day’s additional service. This includes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Lev 16). Atonement for sins was a Temple function that transferred easily to this rabbinic, non-sacrificial context. While still evoking memories of the day’s elaborate Temple rituals, the day came to focus on confession and penitential prayer.[5] Atonement for many sins, though, could be sought every weekday, through the regular liturgy. Thus, the most significant Temple functions were modified or transferred, providing Jews with ritual continuity.

Ritualized Mourning

However, the discontinuities were also stark; mourning for lost rituals factored significantly in coping with the disaster. Zechariah (7:3, 8:18), in the wake of the restoration from Babylonia, knew fast days mourning the loss of the First Temple. After the Roman destruction, Jews merged these events into a single fast on a shared fifth-month anniversary, the Ninth of Av (mid-summer), preceded by a three-week penitential season. The liturgy for the day includes chanting the biblical book of Lamentations and a wealth of poetic laments (qinot) elaborating on the biblical book and reflecting on this and later disasters. Today, these include the Holocaust.

This sense of mourning traditionally also pervades daily life. Rabbinic texts recall that after the destruction, pietists sought to implement an all-pervasive mourning, banning consumption of meat and wine and even marriage and procreation. The rabbis argued this was unsustainable: not only would people openly rebel, resulting in outright disobedience to God’s Torah, but this path’s full logic would complete the Roman’s goal of wiping out Israel. Total, paralyzing mourning was logical, but it was not feasible. Instead, they advocated, a constant low-level of mourning should pervade Jewish life. One should leave an obvious patch unplastered in one’s house, something should remain uneaten at a meal, and a piece of jewelry should remain unworn (t. Sot. 15 end; b. BB 60b.).

The better-known custom of breaking something at a Jewish wedding communicates a similar message. The Talmud teaches that, “in this world,” i.e., after the destruction of the Temple, it is forbidden to be completely joyous. They tell of two different jubilant wedding celebrations where leading rabbis tempered the festivities by smashing expensive glassware (b. Ber. 30b-31a).[6] This precedent was integrated into subsequent ritual. Orthodox Jews today verbalize the meaning of this moment by first chanting, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour” (Ps 137:5-6). Some place ashes on the couples’ foreheads first. Then, after “breaking the glass,” the party begins.[7]

Eschatological Hope

This talmudic passage explicitly contrasts “this world”’s limited joy with that of the eschatological “world to come,” when, exile over, “our mouths will be filled with laughter and our tongues with joyous singing” (Ps 126:1-2). Such messianic hope pervades Jewish ritual life, a hope that embeds within it an expectation that God will end the current exile and restore an ideal human earthly existence. Thus, the seven blessings, recited for the bride and groom at the wedding ceremony and repeated at festive meals for the following week, ask God to cause the barren Jerusalem to know joy (implicitly, like that of this wedding) when her children are regathered to her. They praise God effusively for creating all possible dynamics of joy and ask that these sounds of joy soon fill Jerusalem (b. Ket. 8a).

Liturgical expressions of this hope for restoration appear constantly. The rabbinic weekday prayer petitions God to provide all the necessary elements of the messianically restored state, including its place of worship. The additional services of festive days not only recall the day’s sacrifices, but also pray for their restoration. For the last half-millennium, “Next year in Jerusalem!” has concluded the Passover Seder. In some synagogues, it concludes the Yom Kippur fast as well. More ancient is the Aramaic beginning of the Seder that moves from identification with enslaved, suffering ancestors to a hope that next year, we will gather as free people in the Land of Israel. Indeed, a restoration of the biblical worship system is only a part of Jewish messianic hopes which emerge from prophetic visions of a perfected world combined with expectations that God will, once again, end Israel’s exile and restore her national existence in her homeland.

Meshing this dream with modern realities is extremely complex – resulting in a range of conflicting understandings. Traditional, Orthodox Jews preserve the received rituals and pray for rebuilding the Temple, but differ among themselves both in their eagerness to reimplement sacrificial worship and also about the theological significance of today’s State of Israel and its ingathering of exiles. Only a tiny minority actively prepare to resume sacrificial worship on the Temple Mount, the current locus of the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in the Islamic world.[8]

For the liberal and even secular end of the Jewish spectrum, the State of Israel may or may not hold national and cultural significance, but they do not pray for restoration of the Temple and its sacrifices. These belong to history, and messianic times will manifest themselves primarily in the fulfillment of prophetic visions of universal peace and wellbeing.[9]

Liberal liturgies were adapted to reflect these evolving understandings. For instance, the Conservative movement’s prayer books shifted all discussions of Temple worship to the past tense, eliminating any prayers for its restoration. The Reform movement’s liturgies went further originally, eliminating all prayers about a return to Zion and any mention of sacrifices. From the nineteenth century, synagogues frequently were called “Temple” to indicate that they, with their verbal prayer, were now the only place of legitimate, God-desired, Jewish worship. Only in the 1970s did the first movement-wide American Reform prayer book, The Gates of Prayer, include recognition of a relationship to modern Israel.

Conclusion

Many of these same dynamics of salvage, mourning, and hope shape responses to other times of disaster. Is the Covid-19 pandemic one of them? Modern medicine has greatly reduced the plague’s lethality; modern communications technology has enabled much to be salvaged, to persist in diminished form. Certainly, most grieve for most aspects of their pre-pandemic world, and hope for its return, albeit marked by the lives lost. But perhaps because this hope is still very present, it does not look like this pandemic will create a radical ritual response, a major rethinking of the way the Jewish community stands before God, akin to the emergence of rabbinic liturgy in the aftermath of the ḥurban. Born out of disaster, that liturgy contains the seeds for surviving bad times and good.


Ruth Langer is Professor of Jewish Studies in the Theology Department at Boston College and Interim Director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she received her advanced degrees from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (Cincinnati). She has published widely on the development of Jewish liturgy and ritual and on Christian-Jewish relations. For more information, see her website at https://sites.google.com/bc.edu/ruth-langer.

[1] For a description of the operation of the Temple and its role in the “common Judaism” of the time, see E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE (London/Philadelphia: SCM Press/Trinity Press International, 1992), chs. 5-7.

[2] See Candida R. Moss, Ancient Christian Martyrdom: Diverse Practices, Theologies, and Traditions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 8-16, who points to the limited sources that serve as reliable historical sources for this dynamic.

[3] Jonathan Klawans, “Josephus, the Rabbis, and Responses to Catastrophes Ancient and Modern,” Jewish Quarterly Review 100:2 (Spring 2010): 287-89.

[4] Steven Fine, The Menorah from the Bible to Modern Israel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), Ch. 2, “Flavian Rome to the Nineteenth Century.”

[5] Klawans, 304-306, argues that there is no evidence that Jews were particularly concerned over the loss of the various Temple rituals connected to repair of sin.

[6] In actual practice today, the choice of what to break is based on its fragility. Lightbulbs are a common choice, especially as their vacuum enhances the sound produced.

[7] For example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvOtcWEFWo8.

[8] See, for instance, the website of The Temple Institute in Jerusalem, https://templeinstitute.org/.

[9] For a fuller discussion of these dynamics, see my “Israel in Jewish Theologies,” in Enabling Dialogue About the Land: A Resource Book for Jews and Christians, Philip A. Cunningham, Ruth Langer, and Jesper Svartvik, eds. (New York, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2020), 49-57.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Langer, Ruth. (2021): “Jewish Liturgical Responses to the Roman Destruction of the Temple,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 3. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu.

Notes on Grief

Laying Grief Bare

On April 22, 2020, I did something that I had never done before—I made my deeply personal, profoundly private grief public. Laid bare in an op-ed for the New York Times, I shared “My Mother Is Busy Getting Ready to Die.”[1] A month later I created the companion, now award-winning documentary short, death. everything. nothing.[2] By sharing these acute laments about my mother’s death, I opened the floodgates to a community that I did not expect, grabbed hold of traditions that I had forgotten to remember, and forged new ways of dealing with all of the grief contours death holds.

Grief, death, and loss are full of ironies. Within twenty minutes of the New York Times essay going live, I was on the phone with my mother’s physician, who delivered devastating yet unsurprising news: “I’m so sorry, but Gwen is not going to survive—she must be transferred to hospice.” Within two hours I began getting a flurry of responses, ranging from personal texts and phone calls to tweets and emails. Then there were the site-specific comments to the Times op-ed (mostly generous). Within two days, my family and I had packed up and made our way home to the South Carolina Lowcountry.

It was one of the longest short drives I had ever made. During that drive, much like in the weeks leading up to that day—April 24, 2020—I accepted that my mother was going to die, and tried as best I could to ready myself and my loved ones. That was my immediate task. I did okay…barely.

Getting to Gwen

In accepting my mother’s death, I came to understand that I had to prepare her living body for a metaphysical passing. I did not know this initially when I reached my mother’s hospice bedside five days before she died. But I began to sense that need when my mother shifted from a calm rest in the first day, to mildly labored breathing by the second day, to active groaning and struggle by the third day. On that especially difficult third day, my mother, who was by then nonverbal, let it be known that there was nothing peaceful or good about the state she was in. Her moans and shuddered breaths rendered all of the family visitors uncomfortable, including our seven-year-old son, who visited briefly that day. It felt, just as the entire process had up to then, entirely too excruciating.

Getting to Gwen had been nothing short of a herculean physical effort. Given the logistics of  interstate travel and the statewide visitation restrictions in place during the Coronavirus pandemic, making the  trip to South Carolina from our temporary home in Durham, North Carolina, was far from simple. There were the multiple calls to and from her physician. Then the planning efforts with a hospital administrator. Then, her confirmed move to hospice. These all spurred our hasty packing. Four hours away felt too long and too far. And yet by some serendipitous odds, I arrived at hospice within an hour of her transport.

Upon my arrival and after being screened for virus symptoms and filling out a brief exposure questionnaire, I made a short walk down the hallway and entered Gwen’s room, where I immediately went to her bedside. She was lying on her right side with her back to the door. I reached out, touched her arm, and said, “Mommy, I’m here.” In turn, I received my mom’s last self-initiated eye contact, her last self-motivated bodily movement, and the last words she ever spoke on this earth, when she turned, looked over her shoulder at me and said with a smile, “Hi, Sweetie.”

In those death vigil days, I came to understand that it was not people that my mother needed in her near-final hours, though that was important; she needed ritual. As someone steeped in the study of Black religions of the global South, I followed the well-known tradition of creating an altar, shortly after my arrival. I included an item for libation (water), food (crackers), and a personal item (a small lock of my mother’s hair) to honor the dead while making a path for Mommy. I was mindful to carve out a minimalist space that wasn’t disruptive to the energy of the room—an ancestral altar is, after all, an active space. I set it atop a small corner shelf. I also followed an internal inclination to include something sweet alongside that water and those crackers, as Gwen often craved the sweet-salty combination. I placed a few mandarin orange slices alongside the cheddar crackers, the tuft of hair, and the nondescript plastic cup of water. The altar was accented by a note:

please do not remove these ancestral offerings for Gwen Manigault. I will be sure to properly dispose of them when it is time. Thank you! LeRhonda (Gwen’s daughter).

On the third day, my mother’s unsettled state got to me, too. I was vexed by my inability to help her remain comfortable. I knew enough in that moment to realize that her restless state had little to do with me. And, since she had not yet been deemed “imminent”—that stage in hospice care when the person could literally die at any moment—I sought to clear my head. So, I returned to my husband and son at a not-so-close Airbnb (it was all we could find given the timing and restrictions), took a long, hot shower, and lay down for a nap that felt like a full night’s sleep. 

My sleep was profoundly restorative, and not just because it gave my exhausted body, my grieving heart, and my racing mind respite. It was during that nap that I came to be reminded of the rituals I forgot I knew.

The dream took me to the childhood home I shared with my mother, brother, and maternal grandparents. I saw my grandmother, Annie Mae, as she and I sat with other women folk in the community around the bed of someone who was dying. I could not see the person’s face. Even in the dream I knew the “who” did not matter. It was the “what” that did. What we sang, how we sat, how we actively yet selectively laid hands over the person’s body. How we used the lavender that I could smell in the dream to treat the body, and a petroleum salve to soften the skin. It was how we prayed and spoke and cried and laughed and communed. It was how we went to the town’s crossroads—together.

I awoke with a profound sense of clarity about what must be done, and I prepared to do my mother’s crossings rituals. Those preparations included the assembly of a ritual soundtrack—the sacred and secular songs integral to my mother’s life, and to my life with her, that accompanied me as I accompanied her for as long and as far as I could as she transitioned into death. Rather than being merely imagined, my dream was akin to being reminded of all the things I already knew.

Getting to Gwen, and preparing her body, then, meant that I also had to prepare myself. I had to be reminded of that which I already knew. And from that experience, I came to understand that when it comes to death and mourning and grief, there is profound power in allowing oneself the opportunity to remember what one has thought was lost. These practices, these rituals, are not necessarily closed to us, even as they may seem to be. Rather, they live deep within us, waiting to be unlocked.

Grieving Changes as it Remains

Near the onset of the pandemic, Eddie Glaude remarked, “the pandemic will pass, our grief will endure.”[3] He was right then, and he continues to be right well into 2021. I read his essay and it immediately prompted me to put some descriptive meat on grief’s bones. The result was the piece published by The New York Times:

Like so many countless others, my family and I are going to be left with the unsettling weight of her death. My mother is going to die soon, and it will likely be alone. I am afraid. I am one of many grieving, forever-changed faces. No repast. No lowcountry songs sung graveside. No sending up our timber for her. We cannot grieve properly. Lots of regret. This has everything to do with COVID-19.[4] 

We did not know how to really deal with my mother’s death then, even as I tried as best I could to prepare myself. I felt as if I should have known better. I write about death. “Talking to the dead”[5] is my thing. And yet death that way—rituals performed within my community but with limited access to the people who would readily take part—was not my thing. I have the feeling that grieving this way is not many people’s “thing.” Months later, the various waves of grief I continue to ride affirm Amitha Kalaichandran’s poignant offering: “We’re not ready for this kind of grief.”[6]

It is hard to imagine that I have had to simultaneously hold the terrors of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing violence that Black folks frequently confront in America, and grieving in the midst of disaster. For the longest time I have felt too close to the lack of closure that ill-managed grief incites. Death is and has always been the great equalizer.

And yet, I was able to begin the grieving process and to continue it through the ritual work. Yes, I used ritual to prepare Gwen, but it was also a means of preparing myself.  That shift from mother to daughter was as much about my mother’s needs then as it was about the ways I had to enter ritual practice myself. As her daughter, ritual thus steadied me for a new role: one of the remaining women elders in my immediate family.

For me, laying grief bare by any means necessary was requisite. For me, the creative processes of writing and filmmaking served as their own mourning salves. For me, taking a key element of the ritual processes of grieving our dead in the South Carolina Lowcountry—song-singing—and revamping it into a curated playlist, an epic ritual soundtrack if you will, made the difference. For me, making an altar that readied the ancestral space mattered. For me, opening myself to the power of ancestral communication via dreams was transformational. And for me, mourning before it was even really time to mourn helped me to better prepare myself for immeasurable loss.

I believe that grieving in the time of disaster, pandemic, incomparable loss, and unprecedented sorrow requires us to make our rituals anew. One key way is to grieve in digital publics what would have been done in person, with our families and friends. Rituals, as Evan Imber-Black suggests, require “imagination, responsiveness, and the human spirit” and that we use those generative mechanisms to create new rituals and traditions.[7] We can only do our ongoing work of grieving when we open ourselves to reimagining old ways of grieving anew.


LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College and founder of ConjureGirlBlue Productions. A proud native of Moncks Corner, South Carolina, Rhon navigates the academy as an artist-scholar, where she merges her life as a thinker, musician, and filmmaker. She is the author of multiple academic books, public-facing writing, and films including Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (2014) and the award-winning documentary short “death. everything. nothing” (2020).

[1] LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, “My Mother is Busy Getting Ready to Die.” The New York Times. April 22, 2020. Link:  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/opinion/coronavirus-race-death.html.

[2]death. everything. nothing. A ConjureGirlBlue Productions film by LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, Director. 2020 Link: https://conjuregirlblue.com/portfolio/death-everything-nothing-trailer.

[3] Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. “The Pandemic Will Pass, Our Grief Will Endure.” The Washington Post. April 6, 2020. Link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/06/pandemic-will-pass-our-grief-will-endure/?arc404=true.

[4] Manigault-Bryant, “My Mother is Busy Getting Ready to Die.”

[5] LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant, Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women, Duke University Press, 2014. Link: https://www.dukeupress.edu/talking-to-the-dead.

[6] Amitha Kalaichandran, “We’re Not Ready for This Kind of Grief.” The Atlantic April 13, 2020. Link: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/were-not-ready-for-this-kind-of-grief/609856/.

[7] Evan Imber-Black. “Rituals in the Time of COVID-19: Imagination, Responsiveness, and the Human Spirit.” Family Process 59: 912-921, 2020. Link:  https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12581.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Manigault Bryant, LeRhonda. (2021): “Notes on Grief,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 6: No. 1, Article 2. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu.