LEADER LETTER

Subscribing congregations should share this letter with congregational leaders.  Being oriented to the month’s theme, and equipped to help others in the congregation get aligned with it, builds the whole congregation’s engagement with the theme.  Which, of course, means unity and energy for the community.

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"Spirit and Soul" LEADER LETTER

Dear Friends,

When I was in high school, I loved Otis Redding.  Late at night, in the hand-me-down Subaru I'd gotten from my sister, I'd drive the back roads of East Tennessee with "Cigarettes and Coffee" on the tape deck.  There was an aching poignancy to his voice, a sweetness that broke through the exhaustion and gruffness.  Years later, I would be amazed to learn that Otis Redding had died at the age of only 26.  It seemed, with that voice, that he must have lived forever.  He sung music you could find in the record store under the category of "soul."  And his appeal to me, in my thrashing about, unsure of who, exactly, I was, lay in the simple fact that, while I did not have "soul," he most certainly did.

By the end of his career, blues legend BB King was playing to largely white audiences.  Over and over, in American musical history, we've seen the same trend.  An art-form forged in the crucible of the African-American experience is engaged, adopted, and ultimately transformed by the eager consumption of a white audience.  Now, I still love Otis Redding.  But I've also come to see that some of my appreciation as a teenager, and, maybe even now, rests in a quality not unlike a vampire.  I was casting about, looking for where I could borrow soul.  And, if I might be so bold, it may be that other white music afficianados are about the same pursuit.  Looking for soul, borrowing soul, re-enacting their impression of soul, second-hand. 

Do white people, we could ask, actually have soul on their own?  Yes, of course.  But soul is deepened and realized through contact with suffering, and the transformation of suffering ultimately into a kind of strength.  Or resilience.  And white people have often been taught to avoid pain in their lives.  Convenience and comfort are part of white culture.  In my own family, achieving white status--and the economic opportunities it afforded--came at the cost of cutting free generations and centuries of Northern German culture and heritage.  Songs, holidays, folk traditions that, over time, help cultivate in a people a sense of common identity, a sense of how to engage suffering and times of lack, and a sense of soul.  I know that Scotch-Irish folks I live around here in Appalachia often have made the same trade--to climb the ladder means hiding your roots, and cutting loose your cultural resources.  Which ends up with a person borrowing soul from a person of color.

This month, as we engage the theme of "soul," let's take the chance to be mindful of what, exactly, we mean when we use the term.  How is it accented, or shaded, when we say it?  Are there ways in which we've borrowed the soul of another instead of doing the hard work of cultivating our own?  What would it be if we were to face the hollows where we might grow a soul?  If we each in this world told our own stories, and sang from our own hearts?

I don't know if you, who are reading this, identify, with respect to race.  Or if what I've said about my experience in any way resonates with yours.  But people talk about soul as if it floated free of culture, like some beautiful vapor.  And I'm telling you I think it has something to do with history.  And something to do with culture.  And something to do with how cultures interact, in relationship to power and suffering.  Check it out.  See what you think.  And keep on growing a soul!

Peace,

Jake

Rev. Jake Morrill
Lead Minister ORUUC
Executive Director UUCF
Launchpad Partner