Ministry & Liturgy Browse Catalog Newsroom Creative Services About Us

   /   2012 Issues   /   June/July Issue   /   Sing Justice, Live Justly


Sing Justice, Live Justly

Marty Haugen introduced "Let Justice Roll Like a River" in 1990 during a GIA Publications, Inc., music sampler review at a National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) national convention. Haugen combined gospel-style music with the prophetic voices of Amos, Micah, and Joel, juxtaposing their vital questions and answers between solo verses and SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) refrains. Approximately 2,500 conference participants sang the piece with such robust conviction that the hotel staff stopped their daily labor to come into the conference hall to listen to the song. Why did they stop to hear that particular song out of all the other music we reviewed that afternoon? How many of us who sang that song allowed it to ignite an inferno of prophetic fire within us? Did that experience create reexamination within our hearts and subsequently propel us as agents of change to become the song of justice in our own time, place, and pastoral context?

"Would that all the people of the Lord
   were prophets!
Would that the Lord might bestow his
   spirit on them all!"
(Nm 11:29, 26th Sunday B)

Several years later, my diocese invited clergy to participate in Preaching the Just Word, a retreat led by Walter J. Burghardt, SJ, and Raymond Kemp (see The liturgical team transformed hotel space into retreat and worship space and ministered pastoral music for the five-day retreat. To culminate this extraordinary immersion experience that propelled participants into the heart of faith and Scripture, Catholic social teaching, and worship, we sang "Let Justice Roll Like a River" as a postcommunion song at the final liturgy. Once again, I witnessed hotel staff stopping to linger in the doorway of the worship space, completely mesmerized by this prophetic powerhouse of music that flooded the room "like an ever-flowing stream." As we cleaned the worship space together at the end of the retreat, a member of the hotel staff commented, "That song could set the world on fire if you cut it loose."

How do pastoral musicians "cut loose" the songs of justice to set the world aflame with prophetic passion? Moreover, how do pastoral musicians become the songs of justice we offer as sung prayer with our communities? Does God's word of justice roll like a river in our daily living? Do liturgical ethics sing in our pastoral labor? How do songs of justice shape our own spirituality and inform our Christian discipleship? Will skeptics seek the doorways of our churches because the music we emit resonates so generously with our Christian ethics that they simply cannot stay away? Will our songs of justice not only sing out but also ring true with our conviction, just practices, and accountability? Or do we fall short when the music stops, the worship ends, and our way of life remains unchanged? On the 22nd Sunday, James calls us out: "Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves" (1:22).

Believe you can make a difference

Many years ago, an acquaintance of mine served as the assistant director to the sheriff for a large house of correction. He also sang tenor in a local parish choir and served as a cantor. Soon after our diocese received a new bishop, my friend told me that the bishop asked the sheriff's office if he could preside at a liturgy for the inmates during Advent. I asked my friend if it would be possible for the parish choir to sing for that liturgy.

Initially, choir members objected: "I'm afraid; I've never been inside a prison. Will they try to hurt us?" "I'm a security guard in a prison every day. I come to choir to forget about those people. Do I have to go?" "The people inside a prison don't deserve this. They committed a crime. A prison is a jail, not a country club. We have no business singing for them." "We're a parish choir, not a prison choir." "I have to give up a night of Christmas shopping to go and sing in a prison? Are you kidding me? I don't have time for this; I have grandchildren to buy for and it's another night out of the house at a very busy time of year."

I explained to my musicians that discipleship offers us grace and choice, a two-edged sword of discernment and decision about whether to sing justice and live justly. We need community to help us get there. "I think that it's important for us to resolve this together," I said. "Let's talk and pray about this and then come to a decision together."

Through clear communication, courageous honesty, and respect for the voice of each choir member, we chose to sing for the bishop's Advent liturgy at the house of correction. My friend told me that we received the green light from the sheriff's office and assured me that added security measures would insure the safety of the musicians.

Pastoral musician and composer Tom Conry asks, "How can we express our solidarity with the oppressed in a way that makes a difference? How can we change our lives to be more in character with the radical demands of the gospel?" (Pastoral Music 6:6, 27–31). If we do not honestly ask and answer these questions, songs of peace and justice remain impotent. As our choir sang and prayed with the prisoners, they transformed us. Fear changed to compassion. Cynicism and distrust changed to encouragement. Arrogance turned to gratitude. Thirty armed guards circled the gym and barricaded the way between ministers and assembly. We broke through the bodily walls with music: "A Touching Place" and "We Cannot Measure" (Iona Community, GIA); "A Time Will Come for Singing" (Dan Schutte, OCP); "Song of Judith" (Steven C. Warner, WLP). As we left the house of correction, one of my choir members who had expressed the most fear about visiting a prison asked me, "Can we come back and do this again next year?" We did, again and again.

During the liturgy, my friend approached me and said, "One of the prisoners asked if he could sing a song." When communion ended, the young man came to stand in the front of the assembly. Accompanied by an armed guard, he sang a rendition of a gospel hymn that sent us reeling. Before that night, no one in his community knew he possessed such a gift. We later learned that he formed an inmate gospel choir in the house of correction. That gospel choir kicked off a prison ministry — including a music ministry — that still exists some 20 years later.

Explore the questions that lead to action

Our choir did mystagogy on liturgy as a sacrament of justice after that experience, which catapulted us into a deeper understanding of "thy kingdom come." Questions led to more questions that shed light on our complacency and self-gratification. Through the lens of the music we sang and its scriptural content, we examined our faith and practices in copyright law, wages, health care insurance for our employees, in-house gossip, and our bodily distance from the poor.

As a result, the parish choir mutually agreed to sing in the center of a shopping mall during the season of Advent. We came up with a musical program that used hymn tunes such as TEMPUS ADEST FLORIDUM (aka GOOD KING WENCESLAUS) fused to the prophetic seasonal text by Delores Dufner, OSB: "Nations, Hear the Prophet's Word" (from Sing a New Church [OCP]). We heralded the coming of the Christ within our consumer-driven culture. Rehearsals became a conversation ground as parish musicians mined the texts of the music they sang for worship and their meaning. The "on-going relationship between reflection and action" created what Peter Henriot, SJ, describes as a "circle of praxis" connecting our experiences to strategies for pastoral planning in the areas of justice (Peter Henriot, SJ, and Joe Holland, Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice [Orbis]).

Practice what you sing

As musicians, we practice to hone our skills and to become better at implementing music that contains beauty and power for the people we serve. Deepening our understanding of text, tune, and Scripture requires our consistent practice of mystagogy and theological reflection so that our communities may come to fuller understanding of faith and just practices. Clear in its priority for the poor, the gospel necessitates our full, conscious, and active participation before, during, and after liturgy. Without our deeds, can our worship be effective, or will it be "rendered lifeless when those who use it fail to understand the pastoral purposes that root it in reality"? (Megan McKenna, Rites of Justice [Orbis]).

Consider these statements:

A pastor said, "There are no poor in this town or in this parish, but we take care of the poor from a distance. We embrace our Catholicity and fiscally support our music and religious education programs."

A music minister said, "When I eat out, I've often thought that I should wrap my leftovers and give them to someone homeless who needs a handout on the street."

A choir member said, "I have no desire to spend time in a soup kitchen, food pantry, shelter, or even a hospital emergency room. Those places scare me. I sing in my parish choir. I enjoy making music with everyone, and the rehearsals are right before Mass on Sunday morning. It's just so convenient. We go and sing for a nursing home at Christmas. That's enough."

When we feel the presence of the poor only at a distance, their bodies cannot pervade our hearts and our lives. We can hand our leftovers to the poor and even give clothes, money, and food to the pantries and soup kitchens and social service agencies to ease our consciences, but until they enter our lives as real people, we will not be doing what the liturgy requires. We will not change. The songs of justice we sing and the liturgies we celebrate may thus be only partially valid. Our transition into living bread for others cannot occur. Songs of justice may show well-executed musicianship; however, if our rendering of their prophetic message bears no fruit after the last notes cease, songs of peace and justice remain mere notes on a page. ML

Denise Morency Gannon is a campus minister for music at Emmanuel College in Boston and serves as a consultant and presenter in matters of liturgy and music. She is also the founder and owner of Morgan Music. She contributes the Liturgy Matters column in ML. Contact her through her website,