Hugh Donnelly taught himself to play guitar after enjoying some music one night in an Irish pub. Originally from PEI on Canada’s east coast, Hugh loves late-night conversations about philosophy and theology. Of special interest are the questions without answers. He performs regularly with kindred musical spirits in the band Lost Pilgrims and has, along the way, gained a deeper understanding of the role of solitude, music and art in the spiritual life. Curiosity, inclusion and openness to the unknown have become the pillars of his ministry. He wants to be an astronaut when he grows up.

The Power of Song
Hugh Donnelly

When I was eighteen I participated in a cultural exchange program which brought me to Sweden for a year. Having been raised in a rural community in eastern Canada, I was not very wise to global issues of the day. This was in the 1980’s, during the height of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid (an Afrikaans word meaning separateness) was a system of institutionalized racial segregation which kept power among a minority white population and which deprived Black South Africans of political and civil rights. After apartheid was instituted in 1948, one of ways the government attempted to limit resistance to the laws of segregation was to restrict the freedom of musicians. The subversive potential of music caused fear among the leadership; it’s no accident that over the next decades, many of South Africa’s leading professional musicians were forced into exile. What the government was not prepared for, however, was the surge of music which would emerge from the grassroots: a new generation of resistance music began to be sung in homes, on the streets, at freedom rallies, and in churches.

A few years before my visit to Sweden, in 1978, a Swedish choral group Fjedur, led by musical director Anders Nyberg, was invited by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa to visit and tour the country. Fjedur learned many of the protest songs being sung in faith communities in South Africa and brought that music back to Sweden.

As a way of educating the world of the political abuses taking place in South Africa, and as a way of standing in solidarity with the the oppressed South African people, Fjedur and other Swedish choral groups began promoting South African resistance music at events throughout Sweden.

I happened to attend one of those events at a weekend gathering in Sundsvall, Sweden, in 1987. We were taught about the struggles of the South African people, and we were taught—and sang—their protest songs in the languages of Xhosa, Zulu, Swedish, and English. The experience that weekend was deeply transformative for me. I learned something about the power of music. When we sing together, we learn about the important symbols and metaphors (indeed, theology) of the songwriters. When we sing together, we participate (sometimes) in the subversion of our own assumptions and beliefs. When we sing together, we do so an act of prayer for and with those from whom the songs emerge.

Music has the power not only to reflect reality, but also to shape reality. If we choose to sing only songs which reaffirm our present beliefs, biases, and theologies, the transformative power of music will be lost on us. That weekend in Sweden, I learned about the true power of singing: I chose to sing songs which challenged me, which taught me, which even made me uncomfortable at times. But they were songs which expanded my worlds: both the world outside of me and the world inside of me. Songs and stories which make us bigger—especially on the inside—are true gifts.

Living every day as I do in the church world, I often hear people speak about what they liked and disliked about the liturgy, sermon, art, or music. I find it unfortunate that the first question people often ask themselves after experiencing something new is: “Did I like it?” That should be a secondary question. Imagine how such an experience might be different if we withheld the judgement of like/dislike and first asked ourselves “What did I learn from this experience?” or “What does this music say about God or God’s people?” or “How does this art touch me in my heart and body?” In such questions lies the potential to have our world expand, to be born yet again into transformation. Only after we sit with with these primary questions, I believe, are we really free to move to the level of judgment and ask: “Do I like it?”

A wise person once told me that “the Spirit comes to us on her way to someone else.” The songs I learn are gifts which came to me from someone else’s experience and creativity. And some of those gifts will come to you through me when we meet in St. Louis next January. And those same gifts will (hopefully) be given to someone else through you. The Spirit comes to us on her way to someone else. Every day has the potential to be Pentecost.