Reflections: Can we ‘raise our voices’ in a new song for Easter?

Easter celebrations are filled with traditions. The hymns we sing, choir anthem selections, special prayers and litanies. Even sermons do not wander far from the norm, and there are certain phrases in particular religious traditions that are integral to the Easter message.

Perhaps no other worship service is quite so predictable. Most worshippers have come to expect, even insist upon it—and church leaders take considerable risk if they deviate far from the traditional resurrection texts, or spring new hymn tunes on the congregation.

Bishop Woodie W. White

Bishop Woodie W. White

Easter Sunday, of course, is the occasion to remember and to retell the claim of the Christian faith. In our Communion ritual, it is described as the “mystery of faith”: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!

So on Easter, one cherishes and longs to hear the familiar. But this Easter, perhaps selfishly, I wish it could be a bit different. There is a “new” Easter hymn I would like to hear as I worship on Easter morning, though it isn’t likely to happen. It is a recent one by hymnody standards, titled “Easter People, Raise Your Voices.”

This is one of the few hymns in our United Methodist Hymnal written by an African American. The author of the text, the Rev. William M. James, died quite recently (Jan. 18) at age 97.

He was an extraordinarily effective urban pastor, a member of the New York Annual Conference and a highly respected leader in the denomination. Appointed in 1952 to the now-named Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church in Harlem, he remained pastor of the congregation until his retirement in 1985.

Pastor James was a fixture in Harlem. One could see him daily walking the streets, greeting and engaging everyone, truly concerned with their lives. It is said that he was responsible for nearly a hundred persons going into full-time ministry, and made it possible for hundreds more to attend college.

However, he is not only remembered for shaping individual lives, but for his commitment to community transformation as well. Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, current Congressman Charles Rangel and other officials spoke at Rev. James’ memorial service, recognizing the role he played in influencing policies, legislation and citywide development and renewal.

Claude Brown, in the autobiographical Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), credited Rev. James with changing his life. Brown grew up in Harlem where he succumbed to negative influences and landed in correctional institutions, before turning his life around with the pastor’s help.

Brown describes how he met Rev. James after running into a longtime friend on a New York City street. When Brown admitted that he still had not gotten his life together, his friend asked, “Look, have you ever heard of the Reverend James, at the Metropolitan Community Methodist Church?” Brown replied, “I’m kind of leery about churches, and I’m kind of leery about preachers too.”

His friend responded, “Well, that’s only because you haven’t met this preacher. You know, Claude, there’s a difference between ministers and preachers. . . . This one is a minister.”

And what a minister! What a servant of Christ!

Oh, how I wish the whole church, and I, could sing his hymn on Easter Sunday morning.

Easter people, raise your voices,
sounds of heaven in earth should ring.
Christ has brought us heaven’s choices,
heavenly music, let it ring.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Easter people, let us sing.

Fear of death can no more stop us
from our pressing here below.
For our Lord empowered us to
triumph over every foe.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
On to victory now we go.

Every day to us is Easter,
with its resurrection song.
When in trouble move the faster
to our God who rights the wrong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
See the power of heavenly throngs. *

* Words by William M. James © 1979 the United Methodist Publishing House. Reprinted by permission.

Retired Bishop White is bishop-in-residence at Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.


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Steve Horn

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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