When I started college, I couldn’t have named a single Black gospel singer. I was a classical music major with a narrow range of taste, and thought I already knew everything about what “good music” was.
Not long after, the InterVarsity chapter at my school did a joint weekend retreat with Umoja that profoundly shaped my worldview and racial awareness. I learned that racism was alive on our campus, and that it personally affected the people around me every day. I learned that God created race, and wants us to celebrate it, not ignore it (Revelation 7:9; Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). I learned how much I was missing out on. And I learned that I could have a role in effecting change.
I joined Umoja the following year, and the friendships I made there are some of the most important and enduring of my life. We sang together, prayed together, learned together, and grew together. The love and patience of that holy space was invaluable. I learned about myself, my world, and my privilege in it.
Though I didn’t leave behind other styles of worship, gospel music became part of my own heart music—the music that deeply connects me to God and resonates with the core of my soul as I worship. It helped me experience aspects of God that I hadn’t previously been accessing.
I learned to meditate on words, and to wrap my mind and soul around repeated phrases, to conform my heart to their message. When I sang “grateful, grateful, grateful,” I began to understand what it really meant to be thankful for God’s grace and mercy. Just like in my academic life, I realized that I needed repetition to actually begin to comprehend what these concepts mean.
Through gospel music, I also learned to give God not just my mind and my intellectual understanding of him, but my emotions and my heart as well. I could dance, I could cry, I could shout. God could handle it. I learned to offer praise no matter what my circumstances were and to trust that God was sovereign through it all. When I struggled in my studies, I could lean in with Shirley Caesar and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When I was rejoicing in God’s greatness I could jam to Tye Tribbett or Lonnie Hunter. No matter what I was going through, I trusted that God is good.
Ironically, many of these songs were once considered “devil’s music” in White congregations (not unlike how rap and hip-hop are sometimes treated by the church today). The survival of gospel music came at a high cost for many artists whose royalties were stolen, careers marginalized, and lives threatened. And yet much of our modern music is derived from these roots. I’m grateful to those who made sacrifices so it could thrive today.
We miss out on so much of God’s character when we limit our means of interacting with him. We need to worship in his holiness, as well as his kindness. We need to understand his mercy as well as his strength. Take time this month—African American Music Appreciation Month—and beyond to explore worship music you are less familiar with. Join a gospel choir, sing in a different language, or try dancing or mime. No single culture or genre will ever be enough to express the magnitude of God’s character.
I’ve had so much fun listening to good music in preparation for this post. I couldn’t name them all. Who are your favorites? Leave us a comment!
Katelin Hansen (@strngefruit) is an alumna of the University of Richmond InterVarsity undergraduate and Umoja chapters, and is currently a member of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network at The Ohio State University. She is the editor of By Their Strange Fruit (BTSF), an online forum to facilitate racial justice and reconciliation from a Christ-minded perspective, increasing the visibility of healthy and holy racial discussion.