Hymnal Walk: Songs We Sing! Highlights Black American Hymn Writers

By Brett Hetherington*

“When I’m singing a hymn, I always wonder about the author, about their background. I’m always wondering ‘who wrote this?’ and specifically, because I’m African American, I wondered about ‘who wrote this who is of Color?’ ‘Who are the African American writers?’” said Dr. Feliesha Shelton-Wheeler.  “That is where this idea of a Hymnal Walk came from. It wasn’t called this at first, but with the help of the rest of our team that is what it turned into.”

Shelton-Wheeler is one member of a committee responsible for deciding how Church of the Saviour UMC (North Coast District) would create opportunities to share about Black history throughout February. The Hymnal Walk that the committee decided upon featured 13 large poster-sized boards that displayed a photo of a Black hymn author, their hymn, background information on the author and their hymn, and a QR code that once scanned allowed individuals to listen to the hymn. The boards were hung on the main hallway of the building, inviting church members and guests to stroll along the path and learn more about each hymn one at a time.

“I have always seen Church of the Saviour as this beautiful church that kind of reminds me of a museum, and whatever it was we were going to do I envisioned members and visitors being able to walk through the church as they looked at the display,” shared Shelton-Wheeler.

Sharon Sudbury served as chair of the committee, and she shared that its members were intentional about selecting hymns to be displayed over sorrow songs.

“Sorrow songs were basically music that dealt with most of the suffering that the African Americans were entrenched in during the slavery period, particularly in the working – working in the fields, the houses – that aspect. They are identified by their sorrows in their words – for instance, when you hear ‘nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen.’”

Sudbury shared that much of the music played throughout the month during Sunday morning services were hymns, with a couple of sorrow songs.

There was also an effort to bring attention to both well-known and less-well-known songs. “We have Andrae Crouch, but we also have some early hymn writers that many churches are not familiar with because they do not sing them. Some of them are just not as easy to be sung as others,” said Sudbury.

The Hymnal Walk was well received with many taking their time so as not to rush through their experience. One member of the church shared that they would pick only a few of the hymns to read through each week.

“I truly say this, I think this was God-inspired because once we agreed on this idea, I had to research the authors,” shared Shelton-Wheeler. “I went online, and I had no idea where to go. I was not aware that The United Methodist Church had already highlighted African American writers of hymns in 2013. It was all there. It was just a matter of choosing who we wanted to highlight. I also used one other resource, and with all of that I was able to create the boards we used.”

Nearly all the hymns that were featured in the Hymnal Walk can be found in The United Methodist Hymnal.

The boards were taken down at the end of February, but both Sudbury and Shelton-Wheeler believe there are options for them beyond the walls of Church of the Saviour. “If another church wants to use them, they are certainly welcome,” shared Sudbury.

When the project was complete and Shelton-Wheeler was able to sit back and reflect, she shared that it had a deeper impact upon her than simply learning the history behind the songs that many have sung.

“I think reading the backgrounds of the different authors helped me – and hopefully others – see how very human we are, how connected we are, and the universal experience we have with life challenges and celebrations.”

The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Executive Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at wolcott@eocumc.com.

* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.