We Shall Overcome

Democracy, our worship theme for November, is a system of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as the old quote goes. Democratic governments require people to work together. And we have work to do together. Beyond governing ourselves and resolving our disputes, we need to work together to solve the runaway destruction of our environment and our climate. But today is not a good day for democracy. Both in the U.S. and around the world, anti-democratic governments are on the rise, along with political and cultural polarization. Meditating on democracy at a time like this may bring up feelings of hopelessness, anger, or despair.

Our monthly hymn for November is “We Shall Overcome,” and it’s a perfect antidote to those feelings. For two hundred years, it has helped stoke flames of hope, peace and righteousness. It was written by Africans forced to live in slavery in the U.S., who sang “I’ll be all right someday” while working in the fields. In 1900, Rev. Charles Tindley gave the song a home in the black church with religious lyrics: “If in my heart I do not yield, I’ll overcome someday.” Then it found a home on the picket line, with workers singing “We will win our rights someday.” In the 1950s and ‘60s, it became a key anthem of the U.S. civil rights movement, lending its strength to countless marches, demonstrations, and jail cells.

I was hired to work at UUCP in January of 2013, and the first service I attended after being hired was our annual Martin Luther King, Jr. service. After some beautiful songs by an a cappella group and a powerful justice-themed sermon, the service ended with the congregation singing “We Shall Overcome.” As the song began, members of the a cappella group moved spontaneously, one by one, to the front of the sanctuary and took each other’s hands. Then they began motioning to others (including me!) to come forward, and soon half of the congregation was holding hands in a circle around the hall. To my complete surprise, I found myself tearing up, which had never happened to me in a religious service before. The tears had something to do with being welcomed into a place where people were both serious and hopeful about making the world better, and that feeling was cemented into place by “We Shall Overcome.”

When Katie and I chose “We Shall Overcome” as the hymn for November, we were thinking about congregation’s children. We felt that it was a song that children “should know” as part of being Unitarian Universalists, a part of our shared culture that we simply couldn’t ignore. But it may be just as valuable to adults. As we meditate this month on democracy, and as our own government and society grows more and more polarized and corrosive, let’s keep believing, together, deep in our hearts, that someday, we shall overcome.