I want to tell you a story about why this song means so much to me, but I want to get two bits of “hmm” out of the way first:
First: There is a long tradition in folk music – and hymnody – of writing new words to familiar tunes, or adapting old words and tunes for new use. One of my favorites is Dan Berggren’s rewrite of “Wayfaring Stranger” with the chorus “I’m going home to help my neighbor / I’m going home to do my part / love depends on peace and justice / peace begins in my own heart.” And… I know that it gets trickier when the tune in question is borne of the spirituals sung by enslaved Africans. I’m not sure exactly what to say about that in this case, except to say I think, perhaps, in this case the lyrics continue to call of We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder to find freedom here and now, with new ways of expressing it. I also understand I could be wrong about my assumptions and beg forgiveness if I blew it here.
Second: I know that “sisters, brothers, all” rankles against what we now understand as a gender spectrum, and that many who don’t find themselves in the binary of male and female don’t find space for themselves in this song – particularly poignant as the lyrics are about exactly that: making space and growing. I don’t fault the lyricist, Carole Eagleheart, nor the Hymnal Commission, because we just didn’t have the understanding and the language 25 years ago. (I recently saw someone compare this new understanding of gender to how the ancients didn’t see the color blue and thus didn’t have a word for it – as our understanding grows, we get new words and see the world differently.) I have heard a few substitutions for “sisters, brothers” but the one I like best is “family, neighbors” – it widens the circle and harkens back to Jesus’s admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We are dancing Sarah’s circle,
we are dancing Sarah’s circle
we are dancing Sarah’s circle,
sisters, brothers, all.
Here we seek and find our history…
We will all do our own naming…
Every round a generation…
On and on the circle’s moving…
But now the story:
In 2004, I fell into a major clinical depression with suicidal ideation. I was living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and had no friends, hated my job, worked too hard, and at that moment, just couldn’t figure out how to get out of the hole. Fortunately, I said the right things to the right people, and I found myself in treatment. Many long months of psychiatrists, psychologists, and a litany of medications led to me seeing the path out of the hole, which led me to move back to where my family lives in New York State. As it happens, my mother’s failing health meant she needed more care, so moving in with my mother and sister was a lifeline to me but also a help to the family. It was there that I healed and found my self again.
In order to ensure I built community outside my family, I actively sought out a Unitarian Universalist church, long my tradition but not much my practice in those years in Winston-Salem. I was embraced by Rev. Linda Hoddy and the members of the UU Congregation of Saratoga Springs, which quickly became my home, and which provided space for me to hear my call to ministry.
But in those first few months, feeling very unsure of myself and my footing, figuring out how to be in my family system again without losing myself, figuring out what to do with my life, I encountered a religious community who held and loved me, even as they were in their own pain and sorrow, as a beloved member, Sarah, surrendered her fight against stage-four breast cancer. I watched a community have enough love and care for all of us, and it helped me focus outside of myself and truly begin to heal.
In those last months of 2004, Sarah worked as she was able on what was to be the centerpiece of a large quilt that now hangs at the back of the chancel at UU Saratoga – it features a dove which can also be a chalice, with the only piece of metallic fabric, a beacon of peace and love.
Sarah died on Christmas Eve. When the quilt, called “Journey Well,” was completed a few months later, we saw the center and instantly called it Sarah’s Circle. And we sang this song in her memory. And we all cried.
I barely knew Sarah – I met her only once. But I carry that memory, and every time I am at UU Saratoga, I pause for a moment when I approach the quilt to remember her.
Journey well, Sarah.
Journey well, all.
My fond memory of this hymn is the way we used to sing it at my former UU church. The minister (a woman) would invite the women to sing Sarah’s Circle and the men to sing Jacob’s Ladder, alternating the verses back and forth. This works beautifully since the two hymns face each other in the hymnal. Perhaps this would be too gender-specific for many people today, but it was wonderful to hear the musical contrast between the men’s and women’s voices. Back many years ago when my father, a now-retired United Methodist minister, used to lead congregational singing, he would frequently divide up verses of various hymns, or snippets of verses, between the men and women. It was a lovely way to explore and experience a hymn. (I suppose a better way to do it today would be to divide the singing into “high voices” and “low voices” and let people decide for themselves which part they want to sing.)