At the end of May, President Joe Biden released his proclamation on Black Music Month for June. In it, he said that “black music has fueled a myriad of genres – from rhythm and blues to jazz, gospel, country, rap and more,” that it is “intrinsically woven into the tapestry of our nation” and that it has “conveyed the hopes and struggles of a resilient people.
This is an eloquent description of the legacy of black music in America, and when thinking about the African American struggle as a “resilient people,” gospel music was and still is one of the primary forms of lyrical expressions of faith in Athens, Georgia, the community where I grew up.
As a child, along with many of my friends, I was drawn to the anointed, dynamic melodies of the Georgia and Mississippi Mass Choirs and the Thompson Community Choir in the 1980s. You could say I was a bit like a church elder growing up listening to songs like “Safe in His Arms” by the Thompson Community Choir. Directed by legendary gospel artist Reverend Milton Brunson, “Safe in His Arms” was released in 1986, my freshman year of high school, and it was the first time I had heard the theme of the 23rd Psalm sung with such passion. Written for a lead soprano role, the verse is as follows:
“Because the Lord is my Shepherd / I have everything I need
He lets me rest in the grass of the meadow / And he leads me along the quiet streams
He restores my failing health/And he helps me to do what honors him most
That’s why I’m safe / that’s why I’m safe / that’s why I’m safe
Safe in his arms.
Being only 16, I didn’t fully understand that Brunson was writing about the Good Shepherd who provides for us and gives us peace and comfort during our most difficult trials, but hearing the choir sing about the safety of resting in the arms of God really moved me. The soloist who led this song in my hometown church sang with deep emotion, and I will never forget the older adults who wept and raised their hands as the lyrics gave them strength to endure the difficult situations they faced. I really understand their adoration now.
My childhood friends and I often say that the 80s were the best decade in gospel music. I admit that we are probably a little biased because of the influence that choral music had on our young church lives.
Today, many young people are in Christian bands like Maverick City, which recently collaborated with gospel icon Kirk Franklin on the “Kingdom Book One” album. The album will be released on June 17 and one of the most inspiring features of the production of this project is that Maverick City took inmates from the Florida prison and included them in the background vocals. The lead single, “Kingdom”, was recorded with male inmates at the Everglades Correctional Facility in Miami-Dade County. Watching the video on YouTube is a fascinating experience.
Maverick singers Chandler Moore and Naomi Raine lead the Everglades Choir, which is racially diverse with black, white and Hispanic voices. Young and old sing with all their heart and praise God. “Kingdom” revolves around the Lord’s Prayer with the catchy chorus, “Thine is the Kingdom / The power, the glory / Forever and ever / He finished my story / We sing freedom / Our testimony / We will sing forever, amen.”
This song has a powerful message for our times regarding what the Bible teaches about the kingdom of heaven. He reiterates that the kingdom is already here on earth through the joy of salvation in Christ. That’s why Moore and Raine sing in the bridge that heaven “(looks) like you and me”.
Maverick City and Franklin kicked off their summer tour in early June and have 37 dates booked. Excitement is high for their arrival across the country, and they will be playing to crowds from the west to the east coast. As they take to the stage in front of packed arenas, I pray that the truth of what they sing in the word of God will bless people with the same hope and grace that I felt over 100 years ago. 30 years through choir ministry like that of Reverend Brunson.
This is gospel music at its best – when it rejuvenates the soul.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the Department of English at The Ohio State University-Lima. Join her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. His opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.