During an intensely engaging November weekend, I attended and spoke at the funeral of one of my oldest friends. We began grade school together, in 1950, at St. Augustine’s Mission for Colored Catholics, in East St. Louis. Jacquelyn Stanback Mosley was the smartest person I knew. After she graduated from high school, she married and began her career in higher education, leading to three degrees. For many years she was the medical affairs coordinator of the Grace Hill Neighborhood Health Center in St. Louis. With her husband (Marshall), she raised six children and embraced grand- and great-grandchildren. Cancer made an aggressive intrusion into her life, a life extremely well-lived, with conscious grace and a dedication to service.
The next day, I was the invited preacher/presider at the Sunday liturgies at St. Alphonsus “Rock” Church in St. Louis. That had been Jacquelyn’s parish for twenty-five years. November has been named “Black Catholic History Month,” and I had agreed, weeks earlier to being one of the guests at the parish for that observance. For the next day, Veterans Day, I had also earlier agreed to celebrate a mass at the Loyola Academy, a Jesuit- sponsored middle school at the edge of St. Louis University. Sixty-two sixth, seventh and eighth grade African American and Hispanic male students assembled in the chapel for the weekly all-school mass, coordinated by the Jesuit chaplain and members of the eighth-grade class. One of the staff agreed to provide a song for the worship event. And the senior religion teacher left the campus to bring a special visitor to the liturgy.
As I was in the chaplain’s office, vesting for the mass, in walked Sr. Antona Ebo, FSM, one of my great guides in righteous living, in truth telling, and in perseverance. Sr. Antona established herself as a national justice worker when she defied the “no” of her religious community when she made known her intention to join Martin Luther King, Jr., and his associates on the now-famous March from Selma to Montgomery. The organizers of that march wanted religious leaders to be at the front of the march, in order to make clear and plain the prophetic foundations of the struggle for racial justice and human rights. By countering the “no” of her community with a deeply rooted, “yes,” Sr. Antona announced herself as a leader, both in the Roman Catholic Church and in the nation. She became one of the founding members of the National Black Catholic Sisters’ Conference, in 1968. From numerous documentaries and scholarly interviews to honorary doctorates, Sr. Antona has shone her light, over and over. She walked into the office where I was vesting for mass; and something leapt inside my soul. She brought the unassailable authority of her life to the room. All she had to do was be present.
The scene: A room full of young men of color between the ages of twelve and fifteen, looking at two people who had pushed against the currents of racism in society and in the Catholic Church. It was a weekend crowded with the stimulus of history. My friend’s funeral, watching the brilliantly conceived film, “Twelve Years a Slave”; preaching at one of the most respected black Catholic sacred sites and then sharing the “Welcome Table” with Sr. Antona and dozens of the heralds of our future. So it was altogether appropriate that the young staff member started playing “Wade in the Water” as our opening song. Even though I had some strong ideas of how to weave together my remarks about the occasion with the scripture readings of the day, the song said to me: “Just let us in, and we will give you what you need to say.” The ancestors always arrive on time.
So I told stories, especially about some of the journeying Sr. Antona and I had made, carrying hope with us the whole time – the hope that the generation seated before us would be preparing themselves to shape their (and our) futures. As is usual when I use “Wade in the Water” as an outline for a talk, I broke the phrase into its components, first acting out the different ways one could confront water. Not “tread” in the water; not “drown” in the water; not “paddle” in the water; but “wade” in it. Push against nature’s resistance, not losing your cool, and looking good as you make your progress. Pausing at various references in scripture for getting into the water. The Exodus story and then the crossing of “the Band that Moses led,” over the Jordan, under the leadership of Joshua. The baptism of Jesus in that same Jordan river and the wonderful, odd and beautiful story of Jesus speaking with the man at the edge of the temple pool, called Bethesda (John 5:1 – 9). The belief was that any who were infirmed would be healed if they could be in the pool when the angel of the Lord descended and “stirred” (or “troubled”) the waters. The man Jesus encounters “had no one to put” him in the water. So Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”
The last aspect of the song that usually needs some attention is, “Wade in the Water, Children.” From the construction of the song, it is clear that elders are exhorting children to push against their fear of the unknown (or even the probable) and get into the water – the challenges, the obstacles, the dangers of life – and step into the world that they cannot escape. Not all water will drown you. Not all the world will overwhelm you. Not every danger will kill you. We made it over to the other shore; now let the sound of our singing – our testimony, our witness – guide you through. Your history is an effective guide.
But somebody has to teach our children how to hear the song, sing the song; and look good while wading into whatever comes rushing at them. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?av08GHz_9C4&list=PLbrjbumNvOk2Sd7GI25ZEMsaK858RVNQN]
The illustration: The musician had planned only the one song. The first singing could have used much improvement. It was obvious that the young participants did not “own” the song. Their efforts to find a key were admirable. Not necessarily effective; but admirable. The awkwardness of the performance was one of the sparks that gave me the push to explain the song. When it was repeated during the offering of the gifts – after the sermon – there was much more power in the singing. During the time for communion only the twelve or so students who were Catholic came forward to receive the Host. But all were encouraged to step forward for a blessing. The power of that procession nearly collapsed my heart. Such open, honest, sincere energy came toward me in those two lines; bringing me as close to tears as I have ever been at a mass. Sr. Antona joined me in the formal final blessing, thanking them for moving on up, a little higher. When we know the song, it can claim us. Once again, the chords of “Wade in the Water” enjoined us. Oh, the final performance of the song. It was theirs. Full lung power; open throats; and the smiles on their faces made the song shine.
At the waterside, we blessed each other.