So when Rozlyn suggested to me that “White choirs can’t sing right,” I had to snort, but I didn’t take offense.
We had a great choir at church. They dressed in nice robes and stood up straight and belted out the hymns with as much gusto as I’d ever seen. They made people raise their hands and sway back and forth and break out in big, toothy smiles.
But Roz’s choir? Everybody around here talked about Roz’s choir. They didn’t just make people sway and smile. They made people dance. Whether they wanted to or not. To me, there was a big difference between swaying and dancing, and I was curious as to what that difference was. She was the one who brought up the fact that it was because her choir was full of black people and mine was full of white. I wasn’t going to touch that subject, even with her.
“Sure white choirs can sing right,” I said.
She shook her head slowly so I’d understand. “No, they can’t. Now don’t get me wrong, they can sing sure enough. Sing pretty, too. But there’s a difference between singing and singing.”
“There is?” I asked.
Roz shook her head again. “You gotta be the whitest white boy in the world,” she said. “Of course there’s a difference.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Tell you what. You come to my church Sunday night. We’re having a little praise time. You’ll see what I’m talking about.”
So I went. I had to. The curiosity was killing me.
Her church was small by today’s standards. Small but nice. Comfortable. So it was fitting that the man who greeted me at the door was also small, nice, and comfortable.
“Evenin’ to you,” he said as he handed me a bulletin. “Praise the Lord.”
“Back at’cha,” I said, which brought a chuckle and a solid thump to my back.
I took a seat about halfway up on the left side and spent the next ten minutes standing up and sitting down when folks would walk over to welcome me. A few Yes sirs and Thank you ma’ams later, out walked Roz and the rest of the choir.
Sixteen people by my count, ranging in age from sixty to somewhere in the teens. Evenly divided between men and women. Not much different than the choir at our church except for the fact that they weren’t holding sheet music.
The choir director floated behind the pulpit and led us in an opening prayer. His “Amen!” was the cue for the organist to start, the choir director to start directing, and the congregation to stand.
The organist was nearing the end of the introduction and the director began to raise his hands to signal the choir’s entrance. Roz smiled at me and winked, as if telling to me that I’d better get ready. I would have if I’d known what to get ready for.
More organ as the director’s hands slowly lifted upward. Slowly, slowly. Then…down.
What happened next goes well beyond what I can describe with fingers and a keyboard. You’d have to be here, with me, so you could see the expression on my face as I’d tell it. But I’ll try. When the director threw his hands down and the choir sang that first word (fittingly, that first word was “PRAISE!!”), the sound very nearly knocked me backwards into my seat. I had to grab the pew in front of me to balance myself.
The church exploded in song. Some shot their hands into the air. Others clapped. Others pointed their faces toward the ceiling while their eyes gazed beyond and into heaven itself. Tears welled in my eyes at the sound. I couldn’t move. Couldn’t clap, couldn’t raise my hands, couldn’t even breathe. Roz looked at me and smiled. Whitest white boy in the world, indeed.
This wasn’t singing. I knew that then. No, this was singing.
Afterwards, I sat in the parking lot with Roz, her husband, and their daughter.
“See what I mean?” she said.
“Lesson learned,” I told her. “That was incredible.”
“Nothing incredible about it,” she promised. “Just different.”
“I see that,” I said. “Still don’t understand it, though.”
“Look,” she said, “you know I ain’t one of those black people all up in her history. This is my country, not somewheres in Africa, and my kin were slaves, but you ain’t got a hand in that. We’re just the same in a lot of ways, you and me. But there’s a difference. The faith you got from your momma and daddy was come by the easy way. The faith I got from mine wasn’t.
“We found faith out in the fields. Found it getting whipped and beat on and bought and sold. We hurt, you see? That’s why we can sing. Because the more you suffer, the more you have to thank God for when He leads you out of it. Our singing isn’t just praise. It’s thanks, too.”
I saw then. I understood. Roz was right. We can all sing, but only the wounded can sing truly. Only the maimed and the hurt and the bruised and broken. The best voices are those who not only have cause to praise God, but thank Him, too. And that’s good. Because this whitest white boy in the world came to Him as just that.