Stories and Songs: Weapons of Hope

February 23, 2018 by

We were raised with singing. Breakfast around the family table always began with a song. And in the evening, at six o’clock, a shrill whistle from Dad summoned us kids from a treetop or a backyard ball game to come in for family time, a daily ritual before bedtime.

Dad would tell us stories: from the Old Testament to the Gospels, from mythic heroes to Karl May’s Shatterhand fighting alongside Winnetou for the pride and dignity of the American Indians. And of course adventure stories from Dad’s childhood in the jungles of Paraguay. Then it was singing time. We sang all kinds of songs, but our favorites were the spirituals: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “ Look Away in the Heaven,” “Oh Freedom,” “I’m A Rolling Through an Unfriendly World,” all from a little yellow book, Look Away, whose cover image was an expressive William Smith block print titled “Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen.”

Image of a Look Away songbook

The songs were extensions of the stories Dad told of the struggle for justice and freedom throughout history: the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt; how God led them across the Red Sea and through the desert to the Promised Land; how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the image of Nebuchadnezzar; how Daniel was cast in the lion’s den where God’s angels shut the jaws of the beasts; and the horrors of how the African people were sold into slavery in our country. I could feel the yearning for freedom and justice as I imagined our house a station on the Underground Railroad, with Harriett Tubman slipping out the back door, looking up to the stars to “follow the drinking gourd” north.

Dad told us with excitement and pride how he had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement. He described the powerful singing in the churches, singing that started from the heart and swelled up past the rooftops with the power to unite and uplift a people: “We Shall Overcome Some Day.” He told us that he learned from Dr. King and the singing crowds that victory is won without violence and bloodshed because love is greater than hate, and light is stronger than darkness. These stories and songs transported us to a world where faith gives birth to courage, and courage to action. We learned that song is a weapon, song is prayer, and it has power to lift people from misery to victory.

Song is a weapon, song is prayer, and it has power to lift people from misery to victory.

Singing is good for the soul, and singing that comes from the soul can change the world. Songs from the soul are often born from suffering. They speak of a longing for God, for justice, and for healing. Singing can bring comfort and thankfulness to our hearts – and joy. Joy is the most impressive weapon of song. It fights battle against oppression, depression, and destruction.

So who gets this whole song, story, and music thing the best? That is up for debate, but I put the African-American heritage very high on the all-star ballot. Whether it is in the history, culture, nature, or nurture, it is a gift. The term “cultural appropriation” has negative connotations, but I wish it didn’t. Gifts are to be given, and accepted. If your culture has something to give, it will only be made richer by sharing it. (And if you like something from my culture, then by all means, beg, borrow, or steal it.) But the main thing is, keep singing!

J. Heinrich Arnold is a father and grandfather, as well as a pastor, teacher, and musician. He lives at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. Follow him on Twitter: @JHeinrichArnold. Comments

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Heinrich Arnold 1

J. Heinrich Arnold

J. Heinrich Arnold serves as a senior pastor for the Bruderhof in the United States and abroad.

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  • Thank you for the song

  • Yes , song is a prayer. I remember singing of the song of Oh Look Away in the Heaven years ago. While you sing and you get closer to the God. The songs are the food of soul. Thank you Heinrich. We miss our brother JCA ...!