In the run up to moving countries, I prayed and hoped for a church near my new home. I liked the idea of attending a church that was rooted in the community in which I live. I was blessed by not one but two churches within a block of my house, and have been attending one of them since my first Sunday here. It’s a lovely old (by American standards) church; the majority of those who attend live in the neighbourhood (and many on my street), and I have been made to feel extremely welcome and included since that first day.

Over the years, I’ve gravitated in my worship preference to the old hymns. I have nothing against the “modern stuff”, choruses and big bands, but there’s something about singing songs with verses, and a narrative that gives testimony to what this walk of faith is all about. There’s also something deeply moving about singing songs that have been sung by generations and thinking about what those words have meant to each, in their particular set of circumstances.

My new church is majority of African descent (when I say majority, I mean I am one of four people who does not appear to have any African ancestry), so the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday two weeks ago was something very special. We had two special services focused on his faith, work and legacy. It was a little overwhelming, in a good way, to sit in the midst of men and women who had marched with him, who were among the first to integrate my new neighbourhood and were the targets of hatred and some of the ugliest aspects of humanity. We all have benefited in different ways from what Reverend King did, but it was something very different to sit among people who experienced the before, during and after, personally and directly.

The day opened and closed with a song that became emblematic of the entire Civil Rights movement (the term civil rights bothers me a bit, such a technical and bland term, when what we are talking about is the right to be treated as fellow human beings and citizens): We Shall Overcome. As we linked arms, just as the peaceful activists facing the fire-hoses of Birmingham and Montgomery did years ago, and sang the verses, I thought about what those words mean – we shall overcome.

There’s something slightly troubling and challenging about the words, as although the song is about victory, it openly admits that we have not yet seen this victory. It’s a song that faces up to pain, and misery, and injustice, and ugliness. But it’s a song of hope and faith in implicitly dark times. As I thought about what the song meant to the people with whom I was worshipping, I also thought about the people in the countries where I and my colleagues work. Countries where victory has yet to even be glimpsed but where we know, through faith, eventually We Shall Overcome.

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

The Lord will see us through, The Lord will see us through,
The Lord will see us through someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

We’re on to victory, We’re on to victory,
We’re on to victory someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’re on to victory someday.

We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We’ll walk hand in hand someday.

We are not afraid, we are not afraid,
We are not afraid today;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We are not afraid today.

The truth shall make us free, the truth shall make us free,
The truth shall make us free someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
The truth shall make us free someday.

We shall live in peace, we shall live in peace,
We shall live in peace someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall live in peace someday.

Lyrics derived from Charles Tindley’s gospel song “I’ll Overcome Some Day” (1900), and opening and closing melody from the 19th-century spiritual “No More Auction Block for Me” (a song that dates to before the Civil War).

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