Durham News: Opinion

August 5, 2014

Jesse James DeConto: Groanings too deep for words

The robotic voice murmured from a laptop computer on the back of 26-year-old Sloan Meek’s wheelchair. Sloan has cerebral palsy and cannot speak.

“All right, Lee, if you’re ready, take it away.”

The robotic voice murmured from a laptop computer on the back of 26-year-old Sloan Meek’s wheelchair. Sloan has cerebral palsy and cannot speak. His longtime in-home caregiver, Wendy Lincicome, asks him yes or no questions to craft short speeches like this introduction to “I Am For You,” a Christian worship song Sloan wrote with one of his part-time aides, Lee Anderson.

“I am the bread of life; when you’re hungry, I will feed you,” Lee sang. He, like Wendy, quite literally has to place food in Sloan’s mouth so he can eat.

They all live in the North Street Community, an intentional neighborhood just east of Fullsteam Brewery. There, people with a wide range of physical and mental abilities live together as neighbors, caring for one another. Many of them attend my church, Durham Presbyterian, and participate in programming at the Reality Center, a nonprofit serving people with developmental disabilities, out of which the North Street Community grew.

Three times, Lee reached the chorus: “I am for you!” Those words come from a giant, colorful banner that hangs in the gymnasium-like common room at the Reality Center at the corner of Gregson and Lamond, the old Durham Christian and Missionary Alliance Gospel Tabernacle.

Hung 20-feet high, near the ceiling of the old church, the simple little sentence is supposed to represent the voice of God. At a time when a lot of us associate religion with intolerance, anger and violence, these words carry a message of divine love and grace. They also carry a form of Ubuntu, I-am-because-we-are. If our Creator is for us, then I am for you, and you are for me.

Lee’s melody sits on the word “for.” “Ah-ee am fooooooooooooor you! Ah-ee am foooooooooooor you!”

Sloan, though he cannot articulate the words, joins in.

It’s not singing, exactly, or not like any singing you’ve ever heard. More like a moan that captures all the dynamic movement of the lyric without matching the precise melodic notes nor the consonants or vowels of the words.

In his letter to the Romans, chapter 8, St. Paul had a word of encouragement for people like me, who have trouble praying, especially when I see someone like Sloan, whose body doesn’t seem to work like I think it should, and no amount of prayer seems to make a difference.

God’s Spirit prays FOR us, Paul wrote, “with groanings too deep for words.” If there is such a Spirit of God, He/She/It seems to be groaning too deeply for words when Sloan sings. And when I let myself believe for a moment that a transcendent being is present there, then I start to question how I THINK the world ought to work and open myself to the possibility that maybe Sloan understands things that I don’t, life is not what it seems, and maybe mysteries are truer than facts.

Sloan has been making his rounds over the past couple of years. “I Am For You” is his big hit right now. He and Lee recently sang it for hundreds at The Gathering Church in south Durham, backed up by music director Jeff Crawford’s band, including local all-star musicians Nick Jaeger, James Wallace, Casey Toll (Mount Moriah) and Whit Wright (American Aquarium).

At my previous church, Emmaus Way, which meets at the Reality Center, Sloan came and led worship with another of his friends and caregivers, Noah Goyette, a guitarist and social-work student at N.C. Central who also plays drums in the Durham-based instrumental surfgaze/Western band Arrows Out. (Noah likes to say he is a mix of Alfred and Robin to Sloan’s Batman). Strumming a Gibson SG through a little amp, Noah played two of Sloan’s favorite, The Beatles’ “Let It Be” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Imagine listening to a young man, in a wheelchair, unable to speak, limbs twisted and gnarly, moaning passionately along with words of praise and trust.

“Even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

The simple, repetitive choruses are where Sloan shines, because we all know the words, and our spirits are groaning with him wordlessly even if he’s not enunciating them perfectly.

“Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.”

“Let it be, let it be, let it be, yeah, let it be.”

Sloan’s singing doesn’t mean everything is right with the world. Far from it. But when he gets going, it’s hard not to sing along in honest-to-goodness, genuine joy. I just can’t get enough of that.

Jesse James DeConto’s band The Pinkerton Raid will celebrate a new album, “A Beautiful World,” at Motorco Music Hall on Friday, Aug. 8. Lee Anderson’s band, Look Homeward, will open the show at 8 p.m. Sloan Meek has formed a one-man street team for the show. If you see him around town, ask for a free download of the album. Check out a video of Sloan and Lee singing “I Am For You” with The Gathering Church band: bit.ly/1AMCKYH

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