I was jogging the gravel trail around East Campus when it hit me: If you change just one note in the closing phrase “let it be” from the gospel classic “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” you match the melody of the opening chorus line of The Beatles’ “Let It Be.”
Since February, about 150 of us have been gathering at 7:30 p.m. on the third Sunday of every month at Fullsteam Brewery for Durham County Beer & Hymns. There’s not much more to it than the name suggests: Some of us drink beer, most of us sing hymns, and the main thing is, we get together, renew old friendships, make new ones and try to find a sense of human solidarity in this age when it’s easier to stay home and watch Netflix or pretend that social media is really social.
When we were getting ready for our hymn-sing in March, I tried out my little mash-up of Johnny Cash and the Beatles for the band. My friend Nel, guitar-god Will McFarlane’s daughter and a heavenly singer in her own right, thought it was pretty cool, and that was enough for me. Leading our “congregation” seamlessly from “I am weak but thou art strong” to “when I find myself in times of trouble,” with help from some killer musicians like Mount Moriah’s Casey Toll and The Old Ceremony’s Mark Simonsen – well, let’s just say I had a moment.
We’re not pioneers. Sparked by a decades-old tradition at Britain’s Greenbelt Festival, which immigrated five years ago to its daughter festival, Wild Goose here in North Carolina, Beer & Hymns has been spreading around the nation. It’s in Atlanta, Nashville, the Twin Cities, Portland, Orange County, Philadelphia. Just down I-40 in Raleigh, a robust gathering has been going strong for almost two years at Tir Na Nog Irish Pub.
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In Raleigh or at Wild Goose, the basic experience is on display. It’s a fun, joyful, sing-along, shout-along, maybe aided by a little buzz. Nobody’s getting drunk, but they are getting loose. If you think church is stuffy or pretentious or purely metaphysical or out of touch, Beer & Hymns is none of those things. It’s human bodies, together, in a small space, joining their voices together on tunes that everybody kind of knows.
But context matters. In Durham, and probably in other cities that identify with a major university, it’s not enough to say, “Hey, look, we’re Christians, and we’re not lame. We can have fun!” Here, at least, religion is tricky.
Durham is home to Duke Divinity School, which takes its orthodoxy seriously, perhaps as seriously as any seminary in the world associated with a major research university. Durham is also populated by artists, civil rights activists and a vibrant LGBTQ community, some of whom have endured institutional religion as a hindrance to their moral visions or an assault on their deepest identities. With the Anabaptist peace-church tradition and black liberation theology having strong voices at Duke, I suspect my friends have more in common than they think. They all walk the streets of Durham, they all end up at Fullsteam from time to time, but I’m afraid they don’t talk much to one another, and it makes me sad.
And, so, at Beer & Hymns, we sing not only cherished Christian hymns like “Amazing Grace” and black spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” We also sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and a setting of Psalm 40, because we want to resonate with Jewish voices. At our first gathering in February, just days after the murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, we sang “Peace Train,” by Yusuf Islam, who was Cat Stevens before he converted. We’ve sung with The Beatles as they explored Eastern spirituality in “Dear Prudence.”
These are not grand or sophisticated gestures, and I don’t pretend to know how Beer & Hymns might reflect the higher lights of Durham and of Fullsteam in their opened-armed hospitality. All I know to do is to offer up the best-known, best-loved hymns of our Christian treasury – the songs that have found the widest audience through artists like Elvis, Mahalia, Johnny, Patsy, Willie, the Avetts. Christian hymns will probably always anchor our community, because a sing-along depends on a majority of people knowing a majority of the songs. But we also work to make room for other voices.
My friend, Rev. Will Rose of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chapel Hill, has attended every hymn-sing we’ve had since February. “We all have a story or narrative that shapes our lives,” says Will. “These stories may have different twists and turns or plot lines but the overarching theme is that we are all searching for love, peace and mercy. The songs we share and sing together proclaim this universal search. Christian, Muslim, atheist, spiritual-but-not-religious, we all connect in our universal search for wholeness, peace, love, connections with the other, and redemption.”
It would be imperialistic of us to presume that “we’re all saying the same thing.” But I do think there’s truth in Paul McCartney’s words: “When the brokenhearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.” There might be no faster way to friendship than commiserating over our own human limitations and need for grace, whether from a divine source, or even just from our own selves or from one another. It might not be easy for us all to sing together. But if we waver on one little quarter-note from time to time, maybe all the notes we do hit together will be worth the dissonance.
So let me just say this: We have one more Beer & Hymns, on Sunday, June 21, before we break for July. You’re invited, not just to hear and sing our songs, but to teach us your songs, so that we might sing in one voice.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. Contact him via www.jessejamesdeconto.com.