We have seen this before.

Well, not, entirely – in July, we sang a round based on the first two lines of Psalm 137, and noted that more would come. Well guess what – it’s time for more, and based on my searching, it’s not what we think.

First, let’s look at the lyrics and listen to the original recording, by The Melodians:

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down,
and there we wept, when we remember Zion.
By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down,
and there we wept, when we remember Zion.

Where the wicked carried us away captivity,
required of us a song,
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land.

So let the words of our mouths
and the meditation of our hearts
be acceptable in Thy sight, O Farai.
So let the words of our mouths
and the meditation of our hearts
be acceptable in Thy sight, O Farai.

Now that you have your reggae groove on – a groove many in our congregations will be familiar with because it became a popular song in the 1970s, I should tell you that this version is not as straightforward as you might think, despite it being based on Psalm 137 (and a line from Psalm 19).

It’s not just Judaism set to a reggae beat, it’s Rastafarian – an Abrahamic religion of its own.

In a nutshell (albeit a hasty and not-well written nutshell – apologies), Rastas believe that Ethiopian emperor Haile Sallasie was at least a prophet, and possibly the second coming of Christ, and most certainly, in his role as emperor righting against colonization, the one who would lead a future golden age of eternal peace, righteousness, and prosperity; in this system, developed in Jamaica in the 1930s during British Imperial rule, Sallasie and his wife were called King Alpha and Queen Omega – the beginning and the end. Babylon then is any principality/government/system that oppresses, and the call of the faith is liberation.

Thus, this song, written in 1970, captures the Rastafarian spirit, the hope that we would be freed from exile and led into liberation and prosperity. According to one if the composers, Brent Dowe, the song was initially banned by the Jamaican government because “its overt Rastafarian references (‘King Alpha’ and ‘O Far-I’) were considered subversive and potentially inflammatory” – and yet, as we know too well, truth will out. And after its popularization in the Jimmy Cliff film The Harder They Come, the song spread far and wide.

What I love about the song is the hopefulness – something that is missing from the original psalm, which is by all accounts a lament. (In case you don’t know, the psalm was written while the Judeans were exiled in Babylon, a long hard time when they longed for their homeland.) Adding a sense of hope that there would be deliverance from exile, not just praying for it – offers a resolve that freedom will come, that our prayers are being answered.

Now in terms of using it in our congregations, the best advice I can give is what I give often: have good song leaders (and maybe drums and electric guitar), offer some context, and for goodness’ sake, don’t let it just be a cool pop music break. There’s deep meaning here, and the call is clear.

It’s a great song, used in Jamaican churches to this day. I hope we can expand our understanding of liberation and music by including this one in our congregation too.

Postscript: if you want to mix an appreciation of reggae with bingewatching, I highly recommend Death in Paradise, on Netflix; the score is almost entirely reggae music, and the show itself is great fun – mystery and comedy plus beautiful scenery.

I suspect this piece doesn’t get used much in our congregations.

The reason is probably that it’s in Spanish and is unfamiliar. And that’s too bad. I’d rather the reason be that we don’t often preach on Oscar Romero and liberation theology, or that we don’t often use any part of a Catholic mass in Unitarian Universalist services.

Because that’s what this is – a Sanctus from a Catholic mass. In this case, it’s the Misa Salvadoreña by Guillermo Cuéllar, which blends the folk music of Central America with the traditional words and a heavy dose of liberation – not surprising, as it was commissioned by Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while conducting mass, for his anti-poverty and human rights work that criticized an oppressive government. (Quick memory: I attended a service at Union honoring Romero, where Dr. Daisy Machado purposely stood with her back to the door as she preached and officiated communion, evoking Romero’s final moments.)

In the 1990s, Cuéllar described the political context in a letter to the Rev. Gary Campbell, a Presbyterian minister:

“I know what peace is; I can enjoy it now with all my being after a long drawn-out war that I suffered in my own flesh, in my time and my country. . . . I saw babies thrown into the air and caught on military bayonets. I had to bear the howling of women machine-gunned en masse; the roaring of rockets launched by human beings at other human beings. And I stood and watched while entire towns were swept away by showers of bombs; starving old men blown to pieces by the explosions.

“ . . . For thirteen long years I lived with my bitterness and consternation. It seems a miracle to me that I am alive now, sharing my sufferings with you. But now the warm sun of peace comforts me again, and I know that I could not be different for anything in the world. I rediscovered peace, not only because the arms fell silent, but because in my heart I renounced hatred and vengeance. That peace that springs up inside of each of us is the peace that our Lord Jesus promised to all people of good will.”


Here are the lyrics:

Santo, Santo, Santo, Santo,
Santo, Santo es nuestro Dios.
Señor de toda la tierra, Santo,
Santo es nuestro Dios.

Santo, Santo, Santo, Santo,
Santo, Santo es nuestro Dios.
Señor de toda la historia,
Santo, Santo es nuestro Dios.

Que acompa ña a nuestro pueblo,
que vive en nuestras luchas,
el universo entero, el único Señor.

Benditos los que en su nombre
el Evangelio anuncian,
ta Buena y gran noticia de la liberación.

And the lyrics in English:

Holy, Holy, Holy, Holy,
Holy, Holy is our God.
Ruler of the earth and heavens.
Holy, Holy is our God.

Holy, Holy, Holy, Holy,
Holy, Holy is our God.
In our present, past and future,
Holy, Holy is our God.

Who companions all the people,
who lives within our struggles,
the universal Sov’reign, One God leading us on.

Blessed are those who, in God’s name
give witness to the Gospel,
the news of liberation, for all peoples of earth.

You see, it’s pretty much your standard Sanctus. If it were translated into Spanish. With an eye toward liberation. And written by a San Salvadoran.

And it’s a song we shouldn’t shy away from. Because we should be preaching liberation. And really, it’s a joyful and easy song to sing once you learn it. Here’s a YouTube video to help:

I think I first learned this song in high school, about the same time I heard about apartheid in South Africa. Yet I am pretty sure I never related the two – I know our music teachers didn’t do that, and at that age I wasn’t in a religious education program that helped me understand the world in context (I was in a youth group at a small non-denominational, more-or-less fundamentalist church where we talked bible, not justice).

I began to wonder, as I sought recordings of today’s hymn to share, and found mountains of YouTube videos of high school choirs, if music teachers are doing a better job of connecting the music they sing to the context the music comes from.

Because the context is rich – there is much we can learn about the United States past and present from examining South African apartheid, from the creep of discriminatory legislation to the ways in which resistance to those laws bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

And as we see over and over again, music makes a difference. We have talked about it here a lot – the enslaved Africans in America, the civil rights movement, Estonia’s singing revolution, and more. Music spreads, music informs, music reaches deep in and grabs hold of our spirits, music shifts our energy and can change our minds.

Oh freedom, oh freedom,
oh freedom, freedom is coming!

Oh yes I know, oh yes I know,
oh yes I know, freedom is coming!

Oh freedom, oh freedom,
oh freedom, freedom is coming!

Technically, this song – if unfamiliar – will require some good song leaders, as the power comes from the interwoven parts. Drums will help too. Each part is really easy, but the coordination of them can be complex – hence the contradictory singability tags.

But oh, is it worth it. This is such a joyful, lively, energizing song.

May all feel the freedom this song demands.

Let us live in peace… let us die in peace.


The song’s origins are, not surprising, found in the years following the attacks on 9/11:

This song is the inspiration of a Muslim residing in the United States, Samir Badri. Samir recruited the composer(Ted Warmbrand), a Jew, to set his words to a tune, after they both were featured at a Peace rally in Arizona before the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and then Iraq.

As a song of peace in time of war, it is simply perfect.

And to me, considering how many are fighting ‘the wars at home’ – poverty, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, ableism – it is in fact a perfect song for today too.

Daoona nayeesh beesalaam;
daoona nayeesh Beeamaan;
daoona nansij;
daoona namoot beesalaam.

The English translation from Arabic:

Let us live in peace.
Let us live in inner peace.
Let us weave our dreams together.
Let us die in peace.

Imagine if we sang this with energy at marches and protests against discriminatory laws and tax scams. Imagine if we sang this as a lament at our vigils for transfolk being murdered, for people of color being denied justice, for what will now be a growing number of people dying from poverty and lack of health care, for families torn apart by deportation.

Imagine if we actually lived and died in peace.

Some useful musical/performance notes from the UUA Song Information page:

This song can been shared in different ways: Energetically, meditatively, with audience singing along (as echoes after each phrase), and/or with instrumental breaks allowing for English translation during the piece. It has been sung in 3/4, 12/8, and 4/4 time. Sometimes the composer adds the one word ‘tag’ “aHlaam” (dreams) only at the end and sometimes the song fades out with it. At other times he uses it as a bridge to return to the verse. When unaccompanied or with only percussion “aHlaam” can become a descant under the melody. It was put there to assure people could sing at least one word in Arabic. A pause can be added before the last line, “let us die in peace.”

The image is from Pixabay contributor Gerd Altmann – even though Pixabay offers royalty-free photos for editorial and non-commercial use without attribution, I wanted to name the photographer in this case because it is such a striking image.

Some songs just get into your whole body.

The rhythm pulses in your blood, the melody lines hum in your muscles, the lyrics rest deep in your bones. The song feels as natural to you and as naturally yours as if it had emerged from your own mind and soul.

That’s how this one is for me. From the moment I first heard it, it made sense to me – from the 5/4 rhythm to the rolling musical phrases and the vibrant lyrical metaphors. I think I had this memorized before I realized I wanted to learn it.

I realize that not everyone has this experience with this song, by Jason Shelton and Mary Katherine Morn. Some, because it can be overused. Some, because their accompanists never got the hang of the 6/8+2/4 that is this particular 5/4 meter. Some, because the chorus goes high on the word ‘fire,’ a word that can be weird to sing because of its dipthong.

But for me, this song, written for the celebration of First Unitarian Universalist Nashville’s 50th anniversary in 2002, is practically perfect.

From the light of days remembered burns a beacon bright and clear
Guiding hands and hearts and spirits Into faith set free from fear.

When the fire of commitment sets our mind and soul a blaze
When our hunger and our passion meet to call us on our way
When we live with deep assurance of the flame that burns within,
Then our promise finds fulfillment and our future can begin.

From the stories of our living rings a song both brave and free,
Calling pilgrims still to witness to the life of liberty.


From the dreams of youthful vision comes a new, prophetic voice,
Which demands a deeper justice built by our courageous choice


I think it’s so strong in so many ways. Morn’s lyrics are expansive, hopeful, and to me, theologically sound. Shelton’s music is alive with joy, energy, and anticipation. I haven’t studied music composition, but as a singer I know that just as there are keys that evoke certain mood, there are also certain feelings that you get from different time signatures; my experience with songs written in 5/4 is that there’s an anticipatory feel to them, like something is not quite finished – and that’s either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the song.

Anyway. If you haven’t had a chance to really hear the song the way it should be, check out the recording from Jason’s album – you can hear the addition of percussion helps keep rhythm; additionally, playing the accompaniment with the emphases in the right hand also keeps it driving forward.

I love this song deep in my bones, and I am grateful to Jason, Mary Katherine, and all who worked to bring this song to the fore and plant it in our living tradition.

“Fire Chalice” by PeacePeg – see this and more of her beautiful work at http://peacepeg.tripod.com/index.html

Among the lessons I have learned during this spiritual practice is that the hymnals of a denomination reflect history. Yes, there’s theological history, and certainly musical history, but there’s also a reflection of political and cultural history, if you pay attention.

Singing the Living Tradition reflects the world as it was in the early 1990s – the cold war had just ended but we still had all those nukes around. Apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela had been freed, but we were embroiled in the first Gulf War with no clear objective or victory in sight. Hence, we have in that hymnal a number of songs about world peace and getting along with one another, along with the emphasis on humanism and other kinds of inclusion.

Singing the Journey, produced 12 years later, reflects the times as well, most particularly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in 2001. Hence, we have in this hymnal supplement more songs about world peace and getting along with one another, along with an expanding emphasis on nature-based religions and musical multi-culturalism.

It is this thought that brings us to today’s hymn, an anti-war song that must have felt vital to the STJ hymnal commission. It was written by West Virginia singer-songwriter Karen Mackay, to express her “strong belief in the power of women to influence global culture and bring peace to the world.” It’s got a simple, Appalachian gospel melody that’s easy to pick up and harmonize with, and except for the lack of a verse that expands the gender spectrum, it’s a rather wonderful anti-war song – a perfect addition (especially that last verse) in those first years after 9/11.

If ev’ry woman in the world had her mind set on freedom,
if ev’ry woman in the world dreamed a sweet dream of peace,
if ev’ry woman of ev’ry nation,
young and old, each generation,
held her hands out in the name of love,
there would be no more war.

If ev’ry man in the world had his mind set on freedom,
if ev’ry man in the world dreamed a sweet dream of peace,
if ev’ry man of ev’ry nation,
young and old, each generation,
held his hands out in the name of love,
there would be no more war.
If ev’ry leader in the world shared a vision,
if ev’ry leader in the world shared a sweet dream of peace,
if ev’ry leader of ev’ry nation,
young and old, each generation,
worked for justice and liberation,
holding hands out in the name of love,
there would be no more war.

If ev’ry nation in the world set a true course for freedom,
if ev’ry nation raised its children in a culture of peace,
if all our sons and all our daughters
reached in friendship across the waters,
refusing to be enemies,
there would be no more war.

When I first learned this song in 2005, it felt very fresh and prescient. But like many of our hymns that reflect the times (in both current hymnals), it now feels a bit dated and out of fashion. I started singing this song and wishing that we had verses about today’s problems, because I love it but I am not feeling the need to sing about warring nations right now – there are more pressing issues.

Do note: I’m not advocating not having them – because heaven knows when the next war will erupt, and it will be good to have these songs at the ready. It’s just interesting to note how history informs song choices.

And so the final question, then, is what political and cultural events will shape the next hymnal? Certainly the specter of all-out war doesn’t loom as sharply (except when our Twitter feeds are filled with ill-advised taunts to North Korea); we are much more concerned with the wars at home – black lives matter, immigration justice, health care, financial inequality, feminism, the First Nations, etc. What will our new hymnody look like? And how dated will it feel a dozen years on?

Or is that the cross hymnals in a living tradition bear – that the moment they’re published they are in some ways already out of date?  It’s not a bad problem to have, but it does mean we must pay more and more attention to the new music coming out to fill those gaps between printed books.

Image is of a peace pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

There is a moment in the film The Princes Bride, where Westley, who has been mostly dead all day, is trying to figure out how he and his companions Fezzick and Inigo can storm the castle to rescue Westley’s true love, Buttercup. However, having been mostly dead, and having only just taken the miracle pill to revive him, Westley doesn’t quite have control of his body yet. However, the always helpful Fezzick takes note of his progress:

Fezzik: You just shook your head… doesn’t that make you happy?
Westley: My brains, his steel, and your strength against 60 men, and you think a little head jiggle is supposed to make me happy?

Yes, all seems lost, and something so little as a head jiggle seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the strength they need to win the day. And yet, that head jiggle is a sign of something better, stronger, more righteous to come.

Much like singing this song today. Lord knows the divisions we face today seem nearly insurmountable, and a little Quaker song is supposed to make it better?

Building Bridges between our divisions,
I reach out to you, will you reach out to me?
With all of our voices and all of our visions,
friends, we could make such sweet harmony.

And yet, this simple song with its haunting melody, written by Quakers in the face of nuclear proliferation, does make a difference. It does signal a call for something better. And if more and more people sing it, and mean it, maybe the divisions can be bridged. Yes, the song is not much more than a head wiggle…

…but then, so were the songs in Estonia nearly three decades ago. As described by the documentary The Singing Revolution, “between 1987 and 1991, hundreds of thousands of Estonians gathered publicly to sing forbidden patriotic songs and share protest speeches, risking their lives to proclaim their desire for independence. While violence and bloodshed was the unfortunate end result in other occupied nations of the USSR, the revolutionary songs of the Estonians anchored their struggle for freedom, which was ultimately accomplished without the loss of a single life.”

Yes, in the face of fear, anger, lies, cruelty, and the shattering of democracy… a little song, like a head wiggle, can make all the difference.

This might be, as the hymnal suggests, a spiritual from the time of American slavery. This might also be, as some online sources suggest, a traditional blues tune.

I hate when the search for information in inconclusive.

Because I don’t know whether to talk about the use of 19th century spirituals in our predominantly white congregations, or if we talk about the rich blend of traditions that occurred in the American south, as sounds from Africa, Europe, and the Americas all found themselves woven together into new music.

This is, however, an easy song to learn and lead, and I can see why it’s popular. Although if my searches are evidence of anything, it’s that a song like this can’t be tied down to one particular arrangement or melody – so I caution against the rigidity that other hymns may demand.

Come and go with me to that land,
Come and go with me to that land,
Come and go with me to that land
where I’m bound.  (2x)

There’ll be freedom in that land…

There’ll be justice in that land…

There’ll be singin’ in that land…

The truth is, I prefer how the song sounds in other versions, with variations on the melody we know, and with different patterns of call and response. I’ll leave you with this first known recording of the song, from Blind Willie Johnson with backing vocals by Willie B. Harris:

For all the awfulness of Reddit (a  social news aggregation, web content rating, and discussion website that recently had to crack down on alt-right and Nazi content/users), there is also some wonderfulness – from the AMA (Ask Me Anything) posts with famous and not so famous people, to the joy of helping others find songs, films, and shows in Tip of My Tongue, to the highly rigorous academics of Ask An Historian, and of course Aww, where folks show photos of adorable pets (adorableness being in the eye of the beholder). There is even a group (subreddit) for us, called UUReddit, where we get a fair number of seekers.

Among the wonderfulness is Today I Learned (TIL); as folks go through their days, the share a fact they learned from an old article or interview. Sometimes we already knew that, sometimes we didn’t, but for me, the joy is in seeing someone sparked by new information. The posts always start the same: “Today I learned that….”


Today I learned that there’s a Weavers tribute band called Work o’ the Weavers. They’re based in the Hudson Valley, and essentially they have picked up (with accolades from original Weavers Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert) where this important folk quartet left off, singing both songs from the Weavers’ albums and their own compositions.

Out of this new repertoire comes today’s hymn, written by Work o’ the Weavers member Martha Sandefer. And once you know it’s in the style of the Weavers, it makes perfect sense to be a bit bluesy, a bit folky, a bit repetitive, a lot justice-oriented.

We are building a new way.
We are building a new way.
We are building a new way,
feeling stronger ev’ry day,
We are building a new way.

We are working to be free.
We are working to be free.
We are working to be free,
hate and greed and jealousy.
We are working to be free.

We can feed our every need.
We can feed our ev’ry need.
We can feed our ev’ry need,
Start with love, that is the seed.
We can feed our every need.

Peace and freedom is our cry.
Peace and freedom is our cry.
Peace and freedom is our cry,
Without these this world will die.
Peace and freedom is our cry.

I don’t love the second verse – it feels like it’s missing some words – and maybe in the original it’s worded better. But it’s definitely of a time, and now that I have learned, I see that it’s purposely so.

It’s a popular piece in our congregations, but I’m not sure I like it, although I have a greater appreciation for it now. I’m not quite sure how “building a new way” sits on the ears of those whose land greedy Europeans have taken, either, as it sounds to me a bit like John Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill.” But I know people like it and use it. I’m not sure I ever have or ever will.

Photo is of people ACTUALLY working on building a new way, not just singing about it: Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis (Kairos Center  and fellow Union alum), Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray (UUA president), Rev. Traci Blackmon (UCC national officer), and Rev. Dr. William Barber II, launching the revival of the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC, yesterday, on the 50th anniversary of the original campaign.

I’m sad to say I’ve not sung this very much.

I’m sad because I’ve opted for comfort and chosen other hymns for justice-oriented services, in part because I’m not as comfortable singing Spanish as I am other languages, in part because I’ve not had accompanists willing to try it, and in part because – at least in the last congregation I served – the people would barely make an effort and it would be a train wreck.

And that too is sad. I’m sad for my lack of courage, my lack of perseverance. I am sad that I too leaned on comfort in cases like this, not wanting to die on the hill of a hymn that would, I hope, become a favorite. I’m not sure who it is I’m apologizing to, but to whoever needs to hear it, please know that I am sorry. I know there’s no changing the past, but I will try to do better in the future.

I am also sad, because this is actually a beautiful song. written by Rosa Martha Zárate Macias, its minor key sets a tone for truthtelling, its driving melody sets a tone for action. You can hear a traditional version here, and a rocked-out version here.

Profetiza, Pueblo mío, profetiza una vez más.
Que tu voz sea al eco del clamor de los Pueblos en opresión.
Profetiza, Pueblo mío, profetiza una vez más,
anuncíandole a los pobres una nueva sociedad.

Profeta te consagro,
no haya duda y temor
en tu andar por la historia;
sé fiel a tu misión.


Anunciales a los Pueblos,
que se renovara,
el pacto, en la justicia,
la paz florecera.


Denuncia a quienes causan,
el llanto y la oppression,
la verdad sea tu escudo,
se luz de un nuevo sol.


Esta sea tu esperanza,
esta sea tu luchar,
construer en la justicia,
la nueva sociedad.


English translation by Elsie Zala:

Prophesy, oh my people, prophesy one more time.
Let your voice be the echo of the outcries of all oppressed.
Prophesy, oh my people, prophesy one more time.
Announce to them the coming of a new society.

I sanctify you, prophet.
Banish all doubt and fear.
Be faithful to your mission;
the quest that leads us on.


Announce to all the people
that justice promised long,
Restored to every nation:
true peace throughout the world.


Denounce all who are causing
oppression, sorrow, tears,
Let truth be your protection,
the light of a new sun.


Let this be what you hope for,
the battle that you choose:
To build a social order
with justice at its core.


I didn’t find much about the song or songwriter; the UUA Song Information page says only that it was “written in 1975 and first sung at the II National Convention of Spanish Speaking Catholics in Washington, DC.” I found more about the Rosa Martha Zárate at the GIA Publications page, where I learned that she migrated from Mexico to the US in 1968, and much like other notable singing activists, combined music and leadership to champion human rights – in her case, the rights of Latinx immigrants. She often talked about the power of people organizing to help them ” become agents of our own history and our own destiny.”