remembering

Sr. Thea 

Remembering Sr. Thea,

"Teaching Scripture with the Spirituals"

On December 29, which is the fourth day of Kwanzaa, many celebrate the tradition of "Ujamaa," which is cooperative economics, "To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together." As the community gathers on this day, they will have a feast after sipping from the Unity cup, which contains the wisdom that strengthens African Americans Catholics to promote a strong economic base for the community. However, before all of these activities take place, there is one crucial tradition that occurs. At the very beginning of this celebration, the leader must lead the community in a libation calling for our ancestors' presence. When calling these individuals' names simultaneously, the leader pours water into a plant or ground. We remember these individuals because we stand on their shoulders; they are the ones who poured their blood into the ground. They are the sages who stony the road with rent parties to pay bills, moms and pops stores to build our economy, corner stores without walls to shine shoes, cook, sing and dance to support African American families and churches. The African proverb is right, "As long as you speak my name, I shall live forever." For this reason, this reflection points to the beautiful spirit of Sr. Thea Bowman, who shall live forever in the hearts of many Black Catholics. 

Therefore, I rejoiced when Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, FSPA, canonization started November 13, 2018. Servant of God, Sr. Thea freely gave to her community. She was an educator, actress, and singer who profoundly effected many in this world. One of her friends commented that she made people happy to be alive. In my own experience, while attending the Black Catholic Congress in Washington, D.C., she shared "always feel free to express God's gifts to the Church." Of all the readings by Sr. Thea, her lesson on teaching the scripture with the spirituals remains spiritually rooted for Black Catholics. In "Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star," Sr. Thea stated, "Teaching the songs of faith required definite cognitive, affective, and behavioral objectives; use of right and left brain teaching-learning techniques; participatory learning; reality-based learning; value learning; multi-sensory appeal; involvement of intellect, memory, imagination, will and body." (p. 50) Sr. Thea left us with nine steps to take when teaching the scripture with the Spirituals. (p. 51) Highlighted here are two steps for Catechists and Bible leaders and small group leaders should consider in their groups; first, after singing the song, "tell or read the Bible Story," and then "talk about the story."  

 

By singing the song first, individuals are united and connected spiritually to a Biblical truth through repetition in the words of the spiritual and then through an oral tradition of listening to God's Word, the Bible. Hearing the song and then listening to the Bible will help one to remember and direct them to imagine themselves in the scripture.      

 

Next, the leader must "Talk about the story. Talk about its Biblical meaning. Translate the story into the language and idiom of those who have come to share the Word. Talk with your students about its meaning in their lives today and now." (p. 51) This step is so crucial when teaching the scriptures to any audience today. The teacher must bring God down from lofty mountains. This generation today is hungry for a God who walks with them in their garden. 

 

For example, a popular Christmas song, "Go tell it on the mountain/ that Jesus Christ was born," is a spiritual. In this song, there are several truths that one can discover from this song. First, the song admonishes the audience to "go" and spread the news of the virgin birth. Next, the image of the "mountain" used gives a metaphor of heaven or where God spoke when talking to the Israelites in the Old Testament. Interestingly, there is no mentioning of the place Jesus Christ is born. Another lyric in this spiritual said, "While shepherds kept their watching/ o’er silent flocks by night/ Behold, throughout the heavens / There shone a holy light." The mentioning of the shepherds has a twofold meaning, which was a regular practice in the spirituals to code messages to other slaves. This line references the "Infancy Narrative" of Luke's gospel, but it also tells the slaves to keep watching the slave drivers, the shepherds before they make their escape. Fredrick Douglass and other slave narratives have indicated how it was easy to escape from some plantations during the Christmas season because many of the slave owners were drunk from the Christmas' celebration. Therefore, the slaves would watch the owners and then make their escape, looking at the "holy light," which again had a double meaning. The "holy light" was Jesus, but also a star that slaves followed to freedom-land or the Underground Railroad. 

 

Consequently, the teaching from this spiritual should point one to reflect on the Infancy Narrative from Luke's gospel because of the many images: shepherds, flocks, heaven, and light. Matthew's Infancy Narrative is much different from Luke's gospel. Undoubtedly, after reflecting on this spiritual mentioned above and Luke's gospel, leaders of small groups can lead participants to a deeper reflection on the scriptures, wondering what could be the reasons why the author of the song selected Luke's gospel as opposed to Matthew's gospel. 

 

Now some may wonder if this methodology is possible with the contemporary music of today. Servant of God, Sr. Thea would say, "Yes." For example, Hezekiah Walker wrote a simple song titled "I Need You to Survive." A very crucial lyric in this song is, "I won't harm you with words from my mouth." After singing this song, using the steps that Sr. Thea mentioned, a teacher can lead their students or audience to share moments when people harm one another with words from their months from a historical perspective or by referencing the language we hear on the streets, newspaper clippings, television programs, rap songs or material on the internet. With so much violence in our cities and the murder rate steadily climbing in today's society, we need to have a conversation with our youth, young adults, and elders about how we can survive. Here, the catechist could recommend two passages from the Bible to study with this song: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue; those who choose one shall eat its fruit" (Pr. 18:21). This proverb makes a comparison between "death and life," and the result is that you will taste either a sweet fruit that gives life or a sour fruit that will eventually become bad and then thrown away, it will be rotten.

Moreover, in the New Testament, the Epistle of James said: "For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue" (Ja. 3:7-8). Here we can reflect on natural law and human nature. The teaching from this text causes one to ponder on how we can stop our tongue in the future from harming someone with words from our mouths.

From this one reflection, we can see that we should be grateful for the Servant of God, Sr. Thea's gift to us. She embodied a love for God's Word during her life, building up her faith community with a spirituality that draws others to come to know God. Her spirit points to the scriptures and to remember to sing as the psalmist said, "Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord!" (Ps. 150:6). After reflecting and singing and praying, calling this wonderful spirit to be present with us, we all can say, "Ashea (So be it)."

 

Michael P. Howard, MA. Founder of Eat the Scroll Ministry. Facilitator, Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation, University of Dayton. Instructor/Catechist, Archdiocese of Washington Adult Faith Formation. Consultant Sadlier Publications. 

n December 29, 2019, many will celebrate the African American tradition of Kwanzaa. The principle for this day is called “Ujamaa” cooperative economics, “To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.” As the community gather on this day, they will have a feast after sipping from the Unity cup the wisdom that strengthened African Americans and Black Catholics to promote a strong economic base. However, before all of these activities take place, there is one important tradition that occurs. At the very beginning of this celebration, the leader must lead the community to call for our ancestors. These individuals’ names are called out simultaneously. They are remembered because we stand on their shoulders, they are the ones who poured their blood into the ground. They are sages who stony the road with rent parties to pay bills, moms and pops stores to build our economy, corner stores without walls to shine shoes, cook, sing and dance to support African American families and churches. We awaken these ancestors by pouring a libation into the ground. A libation is a prayerful ceremony when the leader pours liquid into the ground while participants call out their ancestor’s names believing in the wisdom from the African proverb, “As long as you speak my name, I shall live forever.” For this reason, on this fourth day of Kwanzaa it is appropriate to call forth the spirit of Sr. Thea Bowman, who shall live forever in the hearts of many Black Catholics.

If Sr. Thea Bowman was living today, she would be seventy-eight years old. Embedded in this soul sister were several gifts that she freely gave to her community. She was an educator, actress, and singer who had a profound effect on many in this world. One of her friends commented that she made you happy to be alive. In my own experience while attending the Black Catholic Congress in Washington D.C., she told me to “always feel free to express God’s gifts to the Church.” Of all the readings by Sr. Thea that I have read and listened to, her lesson on teaching the scripture with the spirituals remains spiritually rooted in me. In “Sister Thea Bowman, Shooting Star,” Sr. Thea stated, “Teaching the songs of faith required definite cognitive, effective, and behavioral objectives; use of right and left brain teaching-learning techniques; participatory learning; reality-based learning; value learning; multi-sensory appeal; involvement of intellect, memory, imagination, will and body.” (p. 50) Sr. Thea left us with nine steps to take when teaching the Scripture with the Spirituals. (p. 51) I will highlight two of the steps she suggested, first after singing the song, “tell or read the Bible Story,” and then “talk about the story.”

Your audience needs to see the connection immediately between the song that was sung and the Bible. By singing the song first, individuals are united and connected spiritually to a Biblical truth through repetition in the words of the spiritual and then through oral tradition of listening to God’s Word, the Bible. Hearing the song and then listening to the Bible will help one to remember and allow them to imagine place themselves in the scripture.      

Next the leader must “Talk about the story. Talk about its Biblical meaning. Translate the story into the language and idiom of those who have come to share the Word. Talk with your students about its meaning in their lives today and now.” (p. 51) This is so crucial when teaching the scriptures to any audience today. The teacher must bring God down from lofty mountains. This generation today is hungry for a God who walks with them in their personal garden. Therefore, the teacher must know the heartbeat of the community.

For example,a popular Christmas song which is actually classified as a spiritual is “Go tell it on the mountain/ that Jesus Christ was born.” In this spiritual, there are several truths that one can gleam from this song. First,the song admonishes the audience to “go” and spread the news of the virgin birth. Next, the image of the “mountain” was used as a metaphor of heaven or where God spoke when talking to the Israelites in the Old Testament. Interestingly, there is no mentioning of the place where Jesus Christ is born. Another lyric in this spiritual said, “While shepherds kept their watching/ o’er silent flocks by night/Behold, throughout the heavens / There shone a holy light.” The mentioning of the shepherds has a twofold meaning which was a normal practice in the spirituals to code messages to other slaves. This line references the “Infancy Narrative” of Luke’s gospel but it also tells the slaves to keep watching the slave drivers, the shepherds before they make their escape. Fredrick Douglass and other slave narratives have indicated how it was easy to escape from some plantations during the Christmas season because many of the slave owners were drunk from the Christmas’ celebration. Therefore, the slaves would watch the owners and then make their escape, looking at the “holy light” which again had a double meaning. The “holy light” was Jesus, but also a star that slaves followed to freedom land or the Underground Railroad.

 

Consequently, the teaching from this spiritual should point one to reflect on the Infancy Narrative from Luke’s gospel because of the many images: shepherds, flocks, heaven, and light. Matthew’s Infancy Narrative is much different than Luke’s gospel. This can certainly lead a small group sharing to a deeper reflection on the scriptures, wondering what could be the reasons why Luke’s gospel was used as opposed to Matthew’s gospel.

 

Now some may wonder if this methodology is possible with the contemporary music of today. I believe Sr. Thea would say “Yes” and I would agree with her. For example, Hezekiah Walker wrote a simple song titled “I Need You to Survive.” A very key lyric in this song is “I won't harm you with words from my mouth.” After singing this song, using the steps that Sr. Thea mentioned, a teacher can lead their students or audience to share moments when people harm one another with words from their months from a historical reference to the language we hear on the streets, newspaper clippings, television programs, rap songs or material on the internet. With so much violence in our cities and the murder rate steadily climbing in today’s society, we need to have a conversation with our youth, young adults and elders about how we can survive. Here I would recommend two passages from the Bible to study with this song: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue; those who choose one shall eat its fruit” (Pr. 18:21). This proverb makes a comparison between “death and life,” and the end result is that you will taste either a sweet fruit that gives life or a sour fruit that will eventually become bad and then thrown away, it will be rotten. And in the New Testament, the Epistle of James said “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species,but no human being can tame the tongue” (Ja. 3:7-8). Here we can reflect on the natural law and human nature. The teaching from this text causes one to ponder on how we can stop our tongue in the future from harming someone with words from our mouths.

 

From this one reflection we can see that we should be grateful for Sr. Thea’s gift to us. She embodied a love for God’s word throughout her life building up her faith community with a spirituality that draws others to come to know God.  Her spirit points to the scriptures and to remember to sing as the psalmist said, “Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord!” (Ps. 150:6). After reflecting and singing and praying, calling this wonderful spirit to be present with us, we all can say “Ashea (So be it).”

Michael P. Howard, MA. Founder of Eat the Scroll Ministry

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