At the 2001 General Assembly in Cleveland, OH, delegates marched to the baseball stadium to protest the use of the name “Indians” as the team mascot. This effort was particularly cathartic for me. I was a relatively new UU and a long time fan of another baseball team with an equally racially-charged mascot, the Atlanta Braves. I honestly had never been bothered by such team names, and the march and rally challenged me to rethink the insensitivity and privilege of the dominant culture, of which I am a part.
As the delegates filed out of the hall and into a pouring rain, someone started singing “One More Step”, a hymn written by Canadian UU composer, Joyce Poley. No one had copies of Singing the Living Tradition in hand, and it appeared to be an impromptu decision to sing together as we marched in peaceful protest. I was moved to tears as I began a journey of bringing music to the cause of social witness. Although we were guests in that city, our music brought a calming, yet galvanizing, presence to the protest.
In the ten years that followed, music played a part in many efforts of Unitarian Universalists in social witness. Local congregations and communities sang my song, “Meditation on Breathing”, on street corners to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. UUs took on the challenge to Stand on the Side of Love in support of marriage equality, which prompted the hymn, “Standing on the Side of Love” by Revs Mary Katherine Morn and Jason Shelton. This campaign has grown and broadened to include witness for immigration reform and the civil rights of all human beings. When we gather in communities all over the country, in our home towns or in places where the need is great, UU’s are identified as the “love” people by our yellow shirts and our peaceful protests wrapped in justice and in music.
As we prepare to travel to Phoenix for General Assembly in 2012, we bring an awareness of the power of music in witness, as well as a better understanding of how our music resonates differently with different people. We should be aware of “who is in the room, or who might be in the room” when we choose music. How will our singing of “We’ll Build a Land” resonate with native peoples upon whose land white Europeans built? Can we expect those among us with mobility challenges to enthusiastically sing songs that include the words “stand” and “walk”? Is it OK to just change the words to songs so that they fit our comfort zone, with no regard as to the intent of the composer when writing the music?
These are the questions that members of the UU Musicians Network have been grappling with for the past decade. While there may be no clear answers, there are two things that we have learned for sure. One is that we will falter in our choices. When we do, we must pause and ask for clarity from those whom we have wounded. Secondly, we must build relationships with the creators of the music we sing. If we are to use music from the Hispanic community, then we need to be in relationship with that community so that we can share each other’s music with integrity and authenticity. We must listen and learn before we sing.
We will once again be guests in Phoenix, with a unique opportunity to come together in song and witness. Hopefully, our preparations for the music we use will bring solidarity and support as we sing in the name of love.
Sarah Dan Jones is the President of the Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network, and was the Music Coordinator for General Assemblies in Portland and Fort Lauderdale.