Lift Every Voice and Sing! 

En la lucha hay vida!

No matter what people say, you are a child of God!

On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, that “our destiny [that of Black Americans] is tied to America’s destiny.”  Those words were penned eight years before the founding of the present-day Association of Presbyterian Church Educators (APCE), but the sentiment rings true for the church today. 

The future of the mainline denominational church is tied to America’s destiny. For too long my church (and here I speak of the church I grew up in, The United Methodist Church) mirrored the nation – accommodating slavery, splitting as a denomination before the Civil War, reuniting as a segregated body, then finally creating The UMC in 1968. As an institution, the church never led in the country’s tortured movement from slavery to civil rights; it followed. 

Today, confronted by the multiple intersectional challenges of a global pandemic, climate crisis, and a reckoning on race, the church is at a crossroads. Will we face the difficult truth of our past and boldly proclaim the ancient, yet ever-new vision of God’s kin-dom? Or will we once again find ourselves preoccupied with protecting our decaying properties, with meaningless prayers dribbling out of our mouths, prepared to slowly fade into irrelevance rather than change.

I would consider myself an optimistic, happy, well-adjusted musician. The thought of beginning a ‘getting-to-know-you’ article for a Christian educators’ conference with the previous paragraphs would not have crossed my mind . . . under normal circumstances. But alas, the times that have been given to us are not normal.

In our family clergy grew on trees. I loved the church without knowing it. When I was three my parents said that I would sprint down the aisle of the sanctuary and run up the chancel stairs to the ‘big’ organ pipes booming out the postlude. Church summer music camp was life changing for me. From age thirteen, I have worked on Sunday mornings, playing the organ, directing choirs, and leading congregations. 

In 2014 the ground under my mostly-content, naïve worldview began to shift. Rev. Frank Shaefer, a UMC pastor, was stripped of his ordination for marrying his son and male partner.  Grand juries decided not to press charges in the murders of Michael Brown or Eric Garner. In 2015 I was at Montreat leading music for the senior high choir when I heard the devastating news about Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston. In Anderson auditorium I was one of a handful of black people in what felt like a sea of white faces. I suddenly felt insecure and afraid. In 2016 the murders of Philando Castille and Alton Sterling at the hands of police, and the election of Donald Trump further pushed me into deep questions about my vocation in mainline denominational churches. Were the sweet moving songs I composed and performed, were the conferences and workshops I led, enabling White Christians to feel better about their implicit involvement in the entrenched systems of racism, sexism, and homophobia? Was my worship leading in these spaces just a subtler way of propagating white supremacy?

These are the hard questions I am asking myself in this consequential season.  And yet, I still have not lost faith in the church. And I have never lost my faith in the power of love, redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness. In other words, the joy-bringing, justice-making, death-defying gospel of Jesus Christ is still my guiding star, the reason I was called into this work to begin with.

The theme of this year’s conference begins with the words “Circle of Faith.” I take heart from that metaphor. We will continue to draw the circle of our communities wide, for wide is the welcome of  God’s powerful and eternally expansive Love. The theme also reminds us that APCE is celebrating “Fifty years + one and beyond – connecting, enriching, empowering, sustaining.” As we look back and celebrate the past, our worship life and educational resources need to connect the historic inequities of our country with the complicity of the church. We need to have an honest accounting and repent of the sins of racism and all other forms of oppression. In the upcoming conference and beyond, we need to find ways to enrich our worship life so there is, “for everyone born, a place at the table.” And this diversity will be reflected in the words of our prayers, the styles of our music, the art of our stained glass and the faces of our leadership. Finally, in our prophetic liturgical work of reparations and restoration, we empower and sustain the work of those who have been historically disenfranchised from the prosperous mainline denominations. We do this through listening to each other’s stories, and by offering our prayers, presence, and financial resources.

I love the church that nurtured me, that taught me the love of Jesus and the power of music. My optimistic self isn’t gone, it is just being tempered by wisdom. I’m looking forward in these most challenging and crucial of days when we can gather and discover the new ways God is calling us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God and with each other.

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Mark Miller, music leader

Mark Miller is minister of music for Christ Church, Summit, New Jersey, an associate professor of church music, Drew Theological School, and a faculty member of Yale University. He formerly served as director of contemporary worship at Marble Collegiate Church and music associate and assistant organist at Riverside Church, both in New York City. Mark graduated from Yale University and Juilliard. Mark is a prolific composer. His works include The Mark Miller Anthem Series (Abingdon Press). His compositions have aired on NPR and NBC with his most recent album, “Imagine the People of God,” available on iTunes. Discover more about Mark’s music at Mark is married to Michael Murden who is a network engineer for AT&T. They have two children, Alyse and Keith.