On the Sunday of MLK Weekend, I was sitting in the pews at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, surrounded by BJ teens and several hundred members of the church’s local community. The music was blasting, the people were dancing, and not even 60 seconds into the service, one of our BJ teens turned to me and said “I love church!”
Well, that wasn’t the reaction I was expecting.
Every year, we take our teens on immersive trips to allow them to connect with each other and with BJ’s values of community and justice. The Civil Rights Journey we went on with our 8th-10th grades is a perennial favorite. Along with a rousing morning at church, we met with leaders of the Civil Rights movement and visited museums, monuments, and communities where the legacy of slavery gave way to centuries of discrimination and violence against Black people.
While we didn’t intend for our teens to fall in love with church worship, hearing them sing and clap along in Ebenezer truly was music to my ears. The unbridled joy of the service set the tone for the next three days. We did the kinds of things you would expect on a BJ teen trip, like spirited Shabbat prayer and daily Shaharit. But we also had the opportunity to sing songs in unexpected places: on the porch of a conference hotel near Emory University; as we walked across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama; as we stood in the library of the JCC in Birmingham with Bishop Woods, a contemporary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many of the songs we sang were familiar to our teens, such as “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome.” Singing them with Black civil rights leaders helped us connect to the cultural legacy of these songs, which were anthems, prayers, and rallying calls during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and which continue to resonate especially among Black communities.
Joining in song with our hosts and speakers, we were tapping into a spiritual thread that our people have been weaving for millenia. There are times when we’re so full of feeling that the moment comes pouring out of us as music: up our throats and through our fingers, in swaying shoulders and hips, in nodding heads and tapping feet.
The thread that Moshe and Miriam spun in this week’s parashah, Beshalah, as they led the Israelites in song on the edge of the Red Sea as they escaped from Egypt, pulled us to our feet in a Black church as we embraced the joy of song. It weaves among us, regardless of circumstance or background, to remind us that there is power in community, and untapped joy even when the walls rise up around us.
Every Saturday morning, we pray to be caught up by this same thread.
אִלּוּ פִינוּ מָלֵא שִׁירָה כַּיָּם, וּלְשׁוֹנֵנוּ רִנָּה כַּהֲמוֹן גַּלָּיו
If only our mouths were as full of song as the sea brims with water; were that our tongues danced with joy like waves.
As we enter Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song, this is my hope and prayer: May we find ourselves woven into the timeless story of redemption from oppression, and may the joy of resisting injustice together make our lips overflow with music.