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 https://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 https://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 https://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 https://ismreview.yale.edu.