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All of My Help Comes from the Lord

Besides teaching, as you probably know if you've been reading this blog for a while, the other part of my working life is singing in the professional choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Between Assumption (August 15) and the Sunday after Labor Day, the choir is on annual hiatus. As I wrote last year around this time (I Sing Because I'm Happy, I Sing Because I'm Free, August 24, 2003), I take advantage of having Sunday mornings free by going to the 11 am Mass at my local parish on Capitol Hill, Holy Comforter-Saint Cyprian (1357 East Capitol Street, just east of Lincoln Park). Kenneth Louis is the Minister of Music, and the excellent choir sings his music and arrangements of Gospel standards every Sunday. Anyone who lives here or who comes to visit and wants to hear how joyous and Spirit-filled the Catholic Mass can be should go to the 11 am Mass, when the choir sings. Be warned, however, if you are used to a staid, quiet, 1-hour Mass: you are going to hear some real preaching, people are going to be moved by the Spirit, and you will be in Church for two hours. It's absolutely incredible. I guarantee you that you will feel welcome, Catholic or not.

Each time that I go, I am amazed at how easily the Gospel music tradition can be grafted to the ancient rite of the Mass. The words of the responsorial psalm (the response today was "In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge") fit very comfortably with the vocal ethos of blues. The author of the psalms was familiar with oppression and persecution, both personal and national, and those ideas have real resonance with African Americans, in a way that they may not with other groups of Americans. In today's verses, when the psalmist cried, "Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants!" it was deep with meaning. Last year, I wrote about Kirk Franklin's piece Why We Sing, and this week I was really moved by the choir's rendition of the traditional hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms (text by Eli­sha A. Hoff­man and music by An­tho­ny J. Sho­wal­ter, neither of whom was African American) and a more modern tune called "My Help," about which I can find no information (not even in the remarkably thorough Cyber Hymnal).

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