One of the unforgettable moments about Urbana 12 for me was being led in worship by Faith from Swaziland. Sure, it was fun. Yes, the song she led, Siyabonga, is great. And yeah, Faith killed it. Like a boss. But what I relished in was how being on stage with Faith and even including Siyabonga in the Urbana 12 repertoire was not without substance.
In many multiethnic worship sets I’ve been in (and admittedly, that I’ve led), I’ve seen songs in different languages or from different traditions thrown into a set for the sake of diversity, and dare I say, maybe even done with a little bit of tokenism. Of this, too, I am guilty.
But when we sang with Faith what I relished in was that Faith’s presence on stage was not a token act at all. Rather, it was actually the representation of a genuine relationship that she and Sandra had built when Sandra visited Swaziland. And Siyabonga was not just a random song that Sandra heard on the radio and thought would be cool to do at Urbana for the care package night. It was a song that Sandra had experienced in Swaziland and learned from a friend and some of the orphans there. And as an Urbana participant, I received that as a beautiful gift from that community in Swaziland.
All year as we prepared for Urbana 12 I was struck by one thing: When Sandra taught on multiethnic worship, when she chose songs, and when she led multiethnic worship sets she wasn’t leading just out of theory; she led out of relationships with the communities she represented in the worship sets. Deep relationships. It’s something that I admire tremendously and would like to see grow in my own leadership.
For years as I ventured on the multiethnic worship journey, I picked up a lot of information along the way. When I led worship as a student for our InterVarsity chapter, my InterVarsity staff was on the Urbana 03 worship team and taught me all he was learning. I heard first hand about their struggles, their discoveries, and their breakthroughs on the multiethnic worship journey. Then I read some more things in books and articles on African American and Latino worship and picked up more knowledge. While all of those were helpful tools, I’m sad to say that my journey paused there for a very long time, and for a very long time I led out of theories–out of concepts I had read from books–but not out of authentic and shared experiences with the communities I represented in worship sets. Sure, I talked to some of my friends from those communities and asked them a few questions sometimes, but if I’m honest, I didn’t really dig in, get my hands dirty, and immerse myself in incarnate experiences. It was mostly head knowledge, theory, and maybe some surface-level interactions.
But seeing the place that Sandra’s leadership came out of made me hunger for more! It was like I had been leading from a 2-dimensional experience, but there was a dimension she was leading out of that was beyond me. Her genuine life experiences and relationships took it to 3-D.
So often through out the year I heard from Sandra’s mouth things like, “When I was in the gospel choir at Northwestern…” or “When I spent those 10 years discipling Asian American worship leaders…” or “When I hang out with my sister-in-law who is Indian and she says x, y z….” I was awe, and I wanted my leadership to come out of experiences like that. I wanted to lead from that third dimension.
What I also admired about Sandra’s leadership was that she wouldn’t only lead out of what she already knew and limit herself to that. If there was something she had to do (a song to lead, a group to represent) that was outside of her current experience, she actually went out to seek that community and learn from them. She immersed herself in the experience so that she could really grasp in an authentic way what it was about and how to lead others into that experience. This neither could I say for myself. I may have read a new book on it, but I didn’t actually go seek a community and share experiences with them.
I have much, much more to say on the topic of seeking a community to learn from, but I will save that for another post.
For now, I would just like to invite us to seek that third dimension. I want to encourage us to not stop and stall out on the multiethnic journey, but to recognize and pursue something deeper, to pursue authentic experiences with the communities that the songs come from, and to seek and to learn the driving values in that community, and to not just sing the songs. I’m not saying that reading and gaining knowledge about the history of different worship cultures is bad or not beneficial. I am definitely not saying that. What I am saying is that that is an excellent starting place, but I have seen that there is another dimension to the Kingdom of God to experience when we actually get into communities and share life together. Because really, multiethnic worship is not just about the songs, but it is about being a community of diverse people that come before the Lord together and have loved each other well by sharing life together.
So, who are you sharing life with?