Turning Noise into Riddim
Visitors to the Caribbean are always mesmerized by the fact that in spite of poverty and economic deprivation, people are generally easy going and happy. They do not reflect the high stress and tension that is so readily observed in our 'developed' society. In the Caribbean there is a pattern of lifestyle that is easygoing and is lived with a sense simplicity and ease. It has a rhythmic sense about it. It is lived in harmony with its environment. This is a reflection of life that is being lived with vitality and at a pace which is highly influenced by one's faith in God. This God consciousness seeps through the work ethic, culinary arts, cultural expressions, and worship experiences. The German Protestant theologian Hermann Gunkel developed a term he described as 'sitz im leben', loosely translates to 'setting in life.' Life for the normal Caribbean native fits smugly into its 'sitz im leben' in a Caribbean rhythm.
There is a concept evolving in the Caribbean today that seeks to reflect the same thought and more aptly portrays this ideology - 'riddim'. Riddim is a tool that fuses music with the rhythm of the society. Riddim is the musical block around which many varieties of musical expressions can be built and sustained. Each expression is a bold attempt to reflect the ongoing sitz im leben. Many are not aware that the musical expressions of the Caribbean society go way beyond reggae and soca/calypso. Riddim for example is being extended to poetry titled 'rapso' and Caribbean theologians would do well to pay attention to its growing impact. When rhythm and riddim are in sync there is wholesomeness and fulfillment. However, there are situations and times when extraneous events and outside forces will rush in to disrupt the rhythm of the community. When this happens it creates a dissonance. This disruption affects the equilibrium and 'riddim' of the society. Instead of the rhythmic simplicity, in its place we discover alienation and confusion and a metaphoric preponderance of 'noise'. In desperation, when this happens, we, in anxious anticipation, begin the search for anything that would bring synchronization. In desperate anticipation we want to get rid of the noise and restore 'riddim'.
My friends in the midst of the chaos and noise of the urban communities, the priest would often times encounter a similar scenario. He/she seeks to restore a level of God-consciousness to communities seeking wholesomeness. The irony is that very often times the very instruments we offer to restore 'riddim 'instead become noisy gongs. To those uninitiated in the Anglican/ Episcopal way, our buildings and liturgy as attractive as they maybe to us, can become just such an anti-salve. Our worship can be quite daunting to many especially the new congregants and unfulfilling to those who are thirsting for a more personal spiritual experience.
As we at St Elizabeth's seek to expand the outreach programs of our church, quite recently we were required to bring in zoning inspectors of the city. What we were discovering and as they observed that the beauty and structure of the church as wonderful as this is did not lent itself to the ministry required of us. Rather than synchronization, we had dissonance. The 'sitz im leben' in order to be effective requires different kinds of tools. The imposing nature of our buildings, are certainly out of sync with the surrounding community and is a bold reminder of a time and era in which the present day community was not welcomed. This noise is visually echoed in the interior walls with their stained glass windows that not only do not reflect a single black image but the list of donors reflects the same economic and racial divide and history of the community.
My friends as beautiful as the gift we have received from the genius Thomas Cranmer who developed the Book of Common Prayer, it can be quite daunting for many in our urban communities who are seeking to deepen their God consciousness with us. How often we would witness many seekers surrender in frustration in their attempt to share in our worship! What should be worship becomes a frightening challenge. What should be 'riddim' does become noise.
One of the fundamental ways in which Jesus emanated the presence of the living God in the flesh was in his ability to recognize the source of noise and to deflect it and in its place bring his healing power. Out of the noise and confusion he restored rhythm. The noise is sometimes in the inner struggles of individuals, the dissonance between the religious leaders and their followers or a political system that perpetuates European gentile power. Jesus was able to reduce the noise and restore rhythm by declaring the healing, forgiving and empowering nature of God. The role of the church is to continue this vital work aimed at enabling more people to increase their God-consciousness and to provide them with greater access to His divine love.
Sadly what the urban communities often encounter is what St Paul terms as noisy gongs and clanging symbols. The key to ministry and true evangelism is to be found only in a deep love for those whom God has asked us to serve. There are so many who believe that as long as you are making noise you are being productive. My friends, The Episcopal Church continues to struggle with missionary activity within the black community much of it may just be noise. One truly celebrates and fully supports the structured and dynamic thrust into the Hispanic community; yet even though it has admitted its guilt repetitiously to full participation and support of the enslavement of black people, there is a glaring lack of support for repairing the breach; even reparation has been removed from the healing regimen.
The African American still struggles with unfair treatment in terms of the judicial system, the education system, the financial system. We are lulled into thinking that the line ends at our church doors. We struggle with mass incarceration, high dropout rates, high unemployment and other economic injustices which impacts upon our ability to pray and to pay. How can we pray in a church that has failed to uphold its own mandate to enact reparation? The noise is too much! In a recent ruling in Utah vs. Strieff Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor boldly surmises "It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged. We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are "isolated." They are the canaries in the coalmine whose deaths, physical and spiritual, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize the unlawful police stops; they are the ones whose civil liberties are being corroded; they are the ones whose lives are threatened. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but." In the spirit of John the Baptist who sat at the feet of Blessed Elizabeth learning revolutionary riddims and whose birthday we celebrate this week one can boldly and fearlessly declare in the infamous words of Eric Garner "I cannot breathe".
The church needs to be more proactive in engaging our communities and this begins with engaging our black leaders who have in their time successfully turned noise into riddim. Elijah in preparing for his ascent to heaven witnessed the growing anxiety of Elisha and offers his empowering mantle. Jesus in preparing for his departure witnessed the growing discomforts of His followers and sought to help them decipher the difference between the voice and mission of God and that of hapless noisy people. The urban church is called to be working towards an Elijah model of empowerment of its followers. It is very different from; it is the antithesis, the critical countermeasure to the world's noisy message to urban communities of mendicancy and dependency.
Canon Andy Moore