When I was at elementary school in England, we used to meet for “Assembly” every day, to listen to the Headteacher, or perhaps a visitor, and, often, sing a hymn. Singing hymns at school, a consequence of the Church of England being established as the state religion in the UK, probably sounds as strange to American ears as “pledging allegiance to the flag” does to British ones, but at the time we thought nothing of it: it was just one of the things we did. And so even as five year-olds, we’d pick up the battered orange hymn books and struggle to keep up with reading the words of these mysterious new songs, while the older kids at the back mumbled their way through the singing and the tune was bashed out on the piano at the front of the hall.
Soon after learning to read the words while singing them, we started to wonder what they meant. In this, though, we were on our own. I don’t remember any of the hymns ever being explained to us, although I do recall frantically searching the book for the words we were one day suddenly expected to say in unison, and being confused that “We Plow the Fields and Scatter” contained the words “given our daily bread” I had just heard, but contained no mention of any station, Temp or otherwise. And so most of the time we just sang the hymns, with little understanding, appreciation, or feeling - just an increasing level of resentment. By the age of nine, it’s fair to say that we viewed those little orange books with a good deal of contempt. What was the point? “We plow the fields, and scatter, the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand; he sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.” This was obvious nonsense to my 9-year old literal mind, and “Kum Ba Yah,” I thought, was worse. It was one thing to be asked to parrot a story we didn’t believe, but quite another to sing directly to some “Lord” about someone laughing, crying, and praying, who, when we looked around, wasn’t there.
Now, looking back at my 9-year old self and his friends, in the assembly hall at school, all that time and distance away, makes it possible to look across a bit, and further back, at the African American people of the Deep South who sang “Kum Ba Yah” the way it was meant to be sung, to and for each other, over and over again. It turns out that it’s not that they weren’t there, in white, middle class Oxfordshire, for us to see: it’s that we weren’t present to hear them. What a thing to have missed, those imploring voices, singing: come by here, come by here, kum ba yah, kum ba yah.
My neighbor, Anna, always says the same thing when we leave her house after a visit. “Thanks for stopping by,” she says. Her religion is the opposite of established; if she were here she’d say that she doesn’t have a religion at all. But she binds herself to her neighbors through her kindnesses and welcomes, by her gratitude to us simply for coming by. Grateful to be part of a community where such good will abounds, I’ve found myself saying it too.