Sunday, September 04, 2005

God's a-gonna trouble the water

Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
God’s a-gonna trouble the water

This is the first song we sang in church this morning. On almost any Sunday, I am to be found in the Orthodox Church. But this Sunday, my family and I went to the local African Methodist Episcopal church. On this Sunday, we wanted to stand in solidarity with our African-American brothers and sisters, some of whom grew up in New Orleans, many of whom have friends and relatives who have been affected by this tragedy.

As we sang, a projector flashed slides on the back wall: pictures of people walking in the water. People being rescued, pulled into boats and helicopters. Houses half-submerged in the flood. Black faces. White faces. Faces so covered with grime it was hard to tell what color they were.

I wept as I sang, tears sliding down my face while the ushers handed out fans and tissues.

Wade in the water

The service was not somber or subdued, but joyous. It was a celebration, an affirmation of life. I sensed within these people the indomitable spirit of those who have suffered. I noticed that those who were weeping, like me, were mostly the white folks. The black faces were set with a kind of fierce joy; they had seen this bad and worse before, and they had survived. They summoned a courage and dignity from deep within to which I did not have access, a strength that belongs to those who know what it means to patiently endure.

The last scene that flashed on the screen was a picture of New Orleans with a rainbow over it. Devastation and promise. “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

Wade in the water, children

There is an Orthodox blogger who calls me his “leftist counterpart.” He wrote a piece critical of my post about looting. He claimed that the minority poor of New Orleans are suffering, not because they had no transportation to get out of the city, but because they are evil people, lazy and incorrigible, “a community which has so embraced a culture of crime, laziness, contempt for the general social order, abuse, drugs, sexual promiscuity, and lawlessness that it is past the point of no return and cannot be helped for the foreseeable future.” Unlike, apparently, all those good and virtuous white people who cruised out of the city in their air-conditioned SUV’s.

Wade in the water

I wrote a post full of white-hot rage when I read what he had written, in which I inveighed bitterly against a “racist worldview of post-Confederate fantasies.” I’m still angry. But after today’s service, I feel something else.

I feel pity.

Barricade yourself in your house. Lock your doors. Load your guns. Defend yourself and your stuff against those you fear. Choose to believe that some people are not worth the effort to save.

It sounds to me like a foretaste of hell.

God’s a-gonna trouble the water

I learned this from my black brothers and sisters: that the proper response to tragedy is to celebrate life, to affirm it as God’s gift, not to surrender to bitterness or anger. In their midst, I did not see “a spirit of blame and hostility.” I saw a river of joy to wash away a river of pain, and an ocean of love to wash away an ocean of tears. I saw strength, and dignity, and above all, a deep faith that we shall overcome.

A beautiful rendition by Eva Cassidy of "Wade in the Water," a slave spiritual, is available for free and legal download at


olympiada said...

Thanks Sampson. You might be interested in my godfather's work, Father Paisius Altschul over at Saint Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church in Kansas City. Ever heard of him? If you are interested I can link you up. He wrote a book called Wade in the River about the Ancient African Christian Faith. He is how I came to Orthodoxy, and the African missionary you are linked to brought me even deeper.

Mimi said...

Wonderful post, Sampson, as always!

Fr. Oliver said...

Hmmmm, interesting reaction--skip Divine Liturgy. Not sure what to make of that, but I applaud your desire for compassion in the face of the difficult situation many are facing.

Came here from Owen's blog. The two of you could go on for quite a while--you're both emphasizing things that are worth discussing and upholding. Hopefully, the two of you won't lose sight of that.

owen white said...

You actually ended the post with "we shall overcome." That was perfect. My father was a communist for most of his adult life, and I never heard that phrase come out of his mouth. I thought only folk singers used it. I had to read the last sentence twice to make sure I had read it right.
I think you should post the “racist worldview of post-Confederate fantasies” post, or at least send it to me. Be assured that I will not be offended. I have skin as think as it comes. I actually enjoy the dialogue, as much as is epistemologically possible. You are a good writer and I would like to read more of your work, even the "white-hot rage" heavy hitting stuff. Be assured that I will continue to read your blog. And, as we learned on August 6th, very occasionally we do agree on something.

owen white said...

Speaking of "we Shall Overcome," check out
My friend Paige writes a bit about the origins of protest music.

Sampson said...

My response to Paige:

Dear Paige,

I think your post above frankly misrepresents the history of the song "We Shall Overcome" by omitting all the history that led up to the Carawans.

The origins of this song date back to a slave spiritual of the 19th century called "I'll Be All Right." In 1901, a Methodist minister by the name of Charles Albert Tindley, an African American and the son of slave parents, wrote an adaptation of this song, using the original melody, called "I'll Overcome Someday." If you listen to the chorus of this song, you'll hear the basic melody for "We Shall Overcome" played at double speed.

In the 1940's, this song entered into the worker's movement during the tobacco strikes in South Carolina. At that time, the chorus was changed by a Tennessee woman named Zilphia Horton (wife of Miles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School) to "We'll Overcome Someday," and the melody was slowed to half time. Another verse was also added by the workers: "We'll Gain our Rights." Zilphia Horton later taught the song to folk singer Pete Seeger. Seeger changed the chorus to "We Shall Overcome" and added most of the verses we know today. Seeger taught the song to Frank Hamilton, who in turn taught it to Guy Carawan, who wrote it out in the form we know it today.

Having said all this, I should also hasten to point out that the real question about any folk song is not where or how it originates, but how effectively it captures the aspirations of a particular generation. Segregating songs by geographical origin is wrong-headed in my book. Every song stands on its own as a human song, and is judged not by the race or region of its author, but by its ability to express the hopes and yearnings of the human spirit.


Sampson said...

Dear Owen,

No, I don't think I'll be doing anything else with that previously-mentioned post. First, because it contained too much raw profanity even for my relatively lax standards. But second, and more importantly, because I don't think there was really that much insight in it. Whatever sentiments were worth saving went into the second post.

So I will let it will lapse into oblivion, a kind of "lost Dutchman's mine," a rant of nigh-mythical proportions.

Or not.


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