A 4th Moment in Mississippi
In the assemble hall at Power Elementary School once a week we’d gather for sing-alongs. Our wooden chairs had squeaky black-hinged seats that flipped up when not in use. Sit too far back and, if you were a skinny, skinny child like me, the seats flipped up when in use as well. In this cavernous space with its regimented rows, I’d belt out while singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” the line “land where my father died,” because my father had died, and I thought the song belonged to me. Here during our group moments, we skipped singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic—”Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”—because this song had been the North’s battle song during the Civil War. And we were in Jackson, Mississippi. And it was the 1960s when that history still very much mattered.
Today, in 2016, I returned to church for the first time in many years as a Mississippi property owner. Up until then, I’d been thinking of our new house on the Gulf Coast as 45 minutes from New Orleans. An extension of our lives in the Big Easy, where history is more defined by Jazz and pirates, French and Spanish architecture, and Creole cooking than the typical concerns of “Southern” history. Or I’d been focusing on the “ALL are welcome here” signs I’d seen in almost every Bay St. Louis store window, an explicit rejection of the anti-gay hate bills the Mississippi legislature recently passed. But we are back in Mississippi, no doubt about it—yesterday at the local 4th of July celebration I heard nothing but country music blasting from pickup trucks.
Inside the sanctuary of the tiny Episcopal church, the windows opened to the gulf, sunlight sparkling off the rippling bay. From another window, you gazed at an angel carved from the remnants of a Hurricane Katrina oak. The hurricane obliterated the church, along with so much of the coast. The church rebuilt, and the angel now stands witness on its grounds.
As we slowly proceeded through the Episcopal liturgy, I couldn’t take my eyes from the windows. What matters the complicated theology we have worked out in our heads when the sunlight glances like diamonds off the tiny waves? How important is the exclusivity of “the only son of God” proclamation when the blue of ocean spreads freely into the azure sky? It was a perfect combination for me. A God-filled sanctuary—a backdrop, a foundation—from whence I could experience God in creation.
Then the choir began to sing the Offertory anthem, that being the song the choir performs while the church is collecting donations. The choir was small, wobbly. Maybe eight people. But brave-hearted. On this Sunday of the 4th of July in Bay St.Louis, Mississippi the church sang as its anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
I have no idea if they did it on purpose. I don’t know if people even think anymore about the overlays once imposed on the song. But, for me, with my history, it was a moment.
A church in Mississippi was singing as its offering on July 4th Sunday the former battle song of the North. When the aging, white-people choir sang about the coming of the Lord, I heard the Lord’s arrival in them choosing this song. I heard reconciliation. Repudiation of division and a choosing of America. The United States of America.
Change comes with a slow creakiness and then it is upon us. It is our place to recognize it when it arrives.