August 6, 2019

Mel Williams: Singing our way to hope

By Mel Williams
Activist & Baptist pastor emeritus

The Rev. Mel Williams is the coordinator of End Poverty Durham. Before his retirement, he served as pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., for 24 years. While in that role, he served as president of Durham Congregations in Action in 1991-1992; was the co-founder of Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham in 1992; led the creation of the Walltown “Neighbor to Neighbor” mission in 1995; and in 2004 co-founded End Poverty Durham. For five years, Williams chaired the Committee on Baptist Studies at Duke University, which later became the Baptist House of Studies.

Composite Illustration iStock / Rubio

Singing draws people together, comforts the grieving, motivates and inspires. But most of all, it gives us hope, writes a Baptist pastor emeritus and singer.


I come from a long line of singers. I remember as a child gathering around the piano with my parents to sing old gospel hymns.

My mother and father loved to sing, and they turned my three brothers and me into a pretty good quartet. In my preteen years, people discovered that I was a boy soprano, so I got invited to sing for various civic clubs in our small town.

Singing was also part of my church life. We went to church often, and I quickly figured out how to survive the long sermons: get ready for the next hymn.

On Sunday evenings, my favorite part of the service was the 15-minute “Hymns We Love to Sing.” Members of the congregation would call out the numbers of hymns, which we’d sing with gusto.

When I turned 18 and it came time for me to consider a vocation, some suggested that I pursue a career in music. Would I choose ministry or music? Was there a way to choose both? I decided then that I would use music as part of my ministry.

Thus, for my entire career, I’ve been a singing minister — in church choirs, symphony choruses, ensembles, a folk band. I occasionally sing in the middle of my sermon. (When preaching about healing, how can one resist bursting forth with, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole …”?)

I’ve reflected often about why singing captures us and won’t let us go. What I’ve concluded is that singing inspires hope. In these times of tumult and strife, where do we find hope? I think that when a poetic text is set to a lovely melody, that combination becomes irresistible — and motivational.

It may be a simple text such as, “We shall overcome. … We’ll walk hand in hand. … We shall live in peace.” Singing this tune draws us together; it’s a galvanizing force that lifts activists and marchers in the struggle for justice.

Singing forms community. While solos have their place (and I’ve done my fair share of them), I’ve long preferred the chorus over the individual voice. Why? The corporate song draws us into a unity, a communal cohesion, connecting us with each other through times of stress and distress.

When we sing, we can’t do anything else. We get “lost in wonder, love and praise,” as the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” says. The singing takes over and invites us to stay in the present moment, thus giving us access to vitality and aliveness.

As a pastor, I found that singing is another way to connect with members of the congregation. Songs express blessing, forgiveness, delight and lament. When singing makes us come alive, “that is the area in which we are spiritual,” as David Steindl-Rast writes in “Music of Silence.”

Go to any church funeral, for example, and listen to the congregation sing, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing,” and you will hear hope singing through grief. Likewise, grief is tempered when we sing, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.”

We sing the pain, and we sing through the pain. We sing with fervor until the song gets inside us, and the song sings us.

Through the years, various parishioners would confide to me that they were unsure about what they actually believed. They had doubts and questions that prevented a clear, verbal statement of their faith. When I heard these concerns, I usually asked whether they had favorite hymns.

“Make a list of your favorite hymns,” I would tell them, “and you will see what you believe.” Hymns have a way of moving into our hearts and staying in our memory banks; they become a storehouse and expression of our faith, theology and spiritual commitment.

“Amazing Grace” is often at the top of the best-loved hymns list. It’s a compelling affirmation: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

After singing these hymns for so many years, I often find an old tune popping into my consciousness at some unguarded moment. I then sing from memory a welcome word — the song is singing me.

A few years ago, I was sitting in the silence of a Quaker meeting for worship when a Friend rose and said, “This may be out of order, but I know Mel is here, and I’d like to call him out to sing ‘How Can I Keep from Singing?’”

I was startled, but I recovered and did as requested, singing from memory a version of the 19th-century hymn based on Psalm 145. It’s a call for hope in the midst of lament:

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the real though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging;
It sounds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing?

On another occasion, I was walking in a forest when an old hymn started singing me. I found myself singing, “Are you weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?” (The lovely word “cumbered” means “hindered” or “obstructed.”)

This hymn kept on singing me, until I got the message: release the stresses you’re carrying. As I finished my forest walk, I said aloud, “Thanks. I needed that.”

Theologically, it seems clear to me that God has chosen music as a primary vehicle to reach us. God rides on music. Singing becomes a spiritual practice; it wakes us up and gives us a surge of life and hope.

This speaks even to those who have difficulties with church. One Sunday, a stranger appeared in worship. At the church door, he said, “I used to go to church a lot, and now I don’t. The only thing I really miss is the singing.”

I understand what he was saying. In our worship, Scripture, the liturgy and the sermon can bring insight and inspiration. But as my aged mother once said to me, “I’ve been listening to sermons all my life, and I don’t remember a one of them.”

Yet she remembered many hymns and sang them often from memory. Those hymns sang her — and sustained her — through many ups and downs. And after a lifetime of deriving hope and joy from the music, how could she keep from singing?