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The van was filled to capacity as we waited at the stoplight on the intersection of South Ridge St and Patton St. It’s a long light before you can turn left down Patton to make the trek up North Main hill, so I had a little bit of time to find a good station on the van’s radio. Each month, we borrow the van from one of our partner congregations to give rides to and from the big meal we host with another partner congregation. While people are often subdued and quietly thankful on their way to the meal, they are more likely to sing and joke on their way home—they are also more likely to want to have the radio turned on. While before the meal the van is a borrowed vehicle, after the meal it has often transformed into a rolling extension of the meal and God’s jubilee. Those who needed the sustenance of the meal join with those who needed the fellowship of the meal until it’s hard to tell the difference between them. Of course, there never was really a difference: they’re both hungry.
As we settled on a popular radio station, we were just in time for a song that is guaranteed to get stuck in your head for hours (if not days!) at a time. “My blood runs cold. My memory has just been sold…” the radio proclaimed as I turned down Patton St toward the river. Before I could reach up to change the radio station or turn the radio off—even road noise would be preferable to J Geils Band—I noticed that there were several other songs already being sung in the van. In hope that they might have something better to sing, I listened.
As we passed over the bridge under which one of the riders of the bus—one of our brothers and friends—had once taken shelter, I could hear him softly repeating the refrain of a favorite song: “In the name of the Lord,” he sang as he passed over the place where he had once found meager shelter. He had been living there when we first met him and he first started eating with us. Eventually, he moved up to the Northside to a place of his own choosing, where he provided a measure of hospitality to those in direr need—he didn’t have much, but what he had, he shared. Still thankful for how God was moving in his life, his quiet, repeated chorus sounded to me like one of fledgling hope finding root in community.
Passing the elementary school on North Main St where so many of our younger brothers and sisters had once attended, I noticed the crowd of children singing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…” Their school had been shut down when the city made budget cuts and many of them were now bussed to a different city school. Though their little school had once had a greater than 93% free and reduced lunch rate, it had been one of the highest performing schools in the city. Its students, in the middle of one of the largest food deserts in the city, had outperformed the meager expectations of those who didn’t know their powerful potential with the help and guidance of loving teachers and administrators. But, their school was older and smaller in a city with fewer and fewer students, so it was closed. As several of the parents joined their song, I thought about how some of them were still succeeding, but others were falling behind. I wondered if they sang that song when they didn’t have to ride the bus to get to school; I wondered if there were any better solutions. Yet, in that moment, their song sounded defiantly joyful.
As we drew closer to our stop on North Main, we passed a side street where a number of our dearest friends have struggled with their own sobriety. A particular house on that street was a perpetual source of slavery for our friends who struggled against addictions. It was near that street that I heard Evan singing, “Shut the door, keep out the devil, shut the door, keep the devil in the night” with a voice so insistent that I nearly reached for the door handle. Evan had baked and brought two pies that night: a lemon meringue pie that everyone raves over and a chocolate pie that is his personal favorite. He was very pleased to carry back empty pie tins to his tiny home where he keeps meticulous watch over a little, but constantly expanding, garden. That night, in addition to his very popular pies, he had also brought with him a 1-month-keychain from Narcotics Anonymous for which he was equally proud. His catchy chorus was joined by another sister who shared his struggles, but who had recently relapsed. In her mouth, the song sounded less insistent and more pleading.
As the last chords of “Centerfold” faded from the radio, I gave thanks for the other songs being offered in the van and the voices that lifted them up quietly or boisterously. A part of our commitment to living life in community and to the practices of hospitality, simplicity, prayer, and relationship has meant learning new songs and how to sing them—not just the songs we sing at prayer and on porches, but also the songs that the neighborhood sings in its heart; the stories it tells to those who will pay attention. If we cultivate the ears to hear, and the eyes to see, we find that the siren song of our world and its temptations ends up sounding like a forgettable, synthesizer heavy, 80s new wave hit. That is to say, cheap and inauthentic when compared to the vibrant songs we learn to sing of God’s goodness from those who’ve experienced it profoundly. We’ve got to sing better songs, and if we don’t know any, then let’s borrow a song from somebody who does—in hopes that they might have a better song to sing, let’s listen.
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