(RNS) Gun violence has reached a point in this country that the Rev. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, who has written several hymns about it, can’t keep up.
Before the massacre Wednesday (Dec. 2) in San Bernardino, Calif., before the Planned Parenthood clinic shootings in Colorado and before the recent attacks in Paris, Gillette reached for her writing pad after a rampage at an Oregon community college and jotted new verses on the ubiquity of gun violence.
That hymn, "335,609 (I Cried to God)," speaks of the number of people who died in the U.S. from gun violence between 2000 and 2010. It was sung last month at a “United to Stop Gun Violence” event at Washington National Cathedral. The fourth verse, sung to the tune of “Be Still, My Soul,” includes the phrase: "Give us the strength to make the killings cease.”
Video courtesy of Washington National Cathedral via YouTube
Gillette, who lives near Wilmington, Del., a city dubbed "Murder Town USA" by Newsweek, said she tries to provide "sung prayers" for a problem that seems difficult to solve while also spurring people to end gun violence. She compares her hymns to those, like “We Shall Overcome,” that jailed freedom riders sang for encouragement during the civil rights movement.
“I’m hoping that I’m helping people find the words to sing, to find the courage to do what God wants them to do in this world, and that’s to work for a less violent world, a world where we have more justice and more peace.”
Gillette, 54, who co-pastors a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation with her husband, has written more than 300 hymn texts and paired them with well-known melodies that have been sung from hymnals, sometimes for centuries. About half of them have a social justice theme and about half a dozen have focused on gun violence.
Gillette, who was interviewed before the San Bernardino shooting, said she doesn’t write about every tragedy. But some of her writings timed to specific crises have helped people find words to lament on other occasions.
"O God, Our Words Cannot Express," which she wrote after the 9/11 attacks (using the tune “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”), was sung at a recent college chapel where students were wrestling with gun violence.
Its first verse reads: “O God, our words cannot express/The pain we feel this day./Enraged, uncertain, we confess/Our need to bow and pray.”
Audio courtesy of www.musicmediaministry.com
Though timed to U.S. events, her words have reached beyond the country’s borders. "They Met to Read the Bible," written days after nine people were fatally shot at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C., spread as far as St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa.
That hymn, sung to the tune of “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” includes this third verse:
“We grieve a wounded culture/Where fear and terror thrive,/Where some hate others for their race/And guns are glorified./We grieve for sons and daughters lost,/For grandmas who are gone./O God, we cry with broken hearts: This can't continue on!”
Though mostly used in congregational settings, some have taken her hymns to the streets.
In November, the Rev. Jim Atwood joined a group of about two dozen people for a monthly gun violence vigil outside a courthouse in Harrisonburg, Va., and sang the freshly written “335,609.”
“As soon as I saw that hymn I thought, ‘We’ve got to sing that,’” said Atwood, one of about 2,000 people who get regular email updates about her hymns.
Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation in Vallejo, Calif., sang Gillette’s "We Pray for Youth We Dearly Love" outside their church in May in response to the unrest in Baltimore after Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, died in police custody. The verse, to the tune of “Though I May Speak,” was written in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen, in Florida.
“By writing timely words to well-known tunes, Pastor Carolyn gives voice to feelings people have trouble expressing,” said the Rev. Pamela Griffith Pond, whose Vallejo congregation will sing one of Gillette’s new Advent hymns on Sunday. “Her music helps people understand their grief, their anger, their sorrow and also their joy in light of their faith.”
Gillette recalls learning hymns as a child. Now, they are tools for moving people beyond the paralysis they may feel when they hear the latest bad news. Baylor University's publication "Christian Reflection" has commissioned her to write for an upcoming issue titled “Patterns of Violence.”
Even as she prepares new verses for Advent, she included gun violence amid lyrics on peace, joy, love and hope, because she believes words need to tie everyday issues to the faith of hymn singers.
The second verse of "The Candle of Hope" (sung to “O Worship the King, All Glorious Above”) reads: “The candle of peace shines bright with God's plan;/The wolf will lie down and dwell with the lamb./Our guns and our weapons, our hatred and war,/Will give way to gardens that heal and restore.”
“Right now one of the big issues for us in this country, I think, is guns and weapons and violence,” she said. “I think hymns shouldn’t just be sort of lofty otherworldly kinds of things. They should help us relate, basically, to the events of this world and our daily lives.”
(Adelle M. Banks is production editor and a national reporter for RNS.)