Singing for Our Lives: A Guest Post from Erin Wathen

Erin Wathen, the sassiest Lady Preacher I know.
My friend and sorority sister Erin Wathen, of the fascinating blog Irreverin, is back with a gorgeous take on the recent KY All-State Chorus hotel performance that became a bit of an internet phenomenon. For more of Erin's stories of faith, sass, Southern values, and Lady Preacher-hood, check out her blog and her Facebook page. -- HCW

I’m not sure how it started, or when. But at least since I was a young’n, and probably a good many moons before that… each year, several hundred high school students would gather at the Hyatt Regency in Louisville for Kentucky All State Choir. (Yeah, that’s how we rolled, y’all. A glimpse of my wild and crazy youth right here). 

That hotel is about 20 stories high, with a large open-air atrium for a lobby. You can look up from the ground floor and literally see the door to every guest room, surrounding you on every side. And UP. So far up. When you are a kid from the holler—even if you’re a relatively well-travelled kid from the holler—that’s an impressive structure. 

On that first night, every year, we would all stream out of our rooms… Still giddy from the long bus ride, the first glimpse of a city skyline, and the prospect of 3 days in a hotel with NO PARENTS… We would all come out and stand along the balcony railing. A dozen at first, then a hundred, then five hundred. And somebody, somewhere, would start singing. 

There was a standard fair, you know, to the high school choir routine. My Old Kentucky Home. The Star-Spangled Banner. 16 Tons. The Lion Sleeps Tonight. And whatever the audition piece was to get to All-State that year… These were all songs that every high school music nerd in the state knew, in 4-part harmony. It’s fun in the classroom. It’s cool on the bus. But singing into an open air atrium in surround sound… Astounding and marvelous. 

Now, the sad news was that the All-State Choir event took up the whole dang hotel and even spilled over to other places down the street. Which means that nearly every person in the building, at the time of this miraculous performance, was taking part in it. Occasionally, the new front desk employee, the hapless downtown tourist, or the first time parent chaperone would look up in startled delight. But for the most part—we were singing to the choir. (Which is much like preaching to the choir, only more musical). Fast forward 20 (yikes) years. There are cell phones. With video recorders. There’s youtube. Vimeo. Facebook, Twitter, and a planet full of people who are desperate for small glimpses of inspiration, joy, and spontaneous community. Add to this scenario the confluence of this year’s All State Choir gathering with the first night of the Olympics. And suddenly, this decades-old belting of the national anthem becomes a ‘patriotic tribute,’ an ‘internet sensation,’ and a ‘viral high school flash mob.’ 

A flash mob?! Is that what that was? 20-some years ago, we didn’t know that term. We didn’t have cell phones with cameras. We were just kids on a trip. We were just singing into the void. 

Thing is, I watched it anyway. Last week, I watched that same anthem trickle down from 20 stories high, 20 years later. And it sounded just the same. Two decades removed, however many thousands of voices later, the song itself has not changed. Maybe seeing something from your youth, played out live when you are just this side of 35, lends significance to a memory you’d long filed away. Or maybe the real shift comes when you view it from a more global perspective, with about a million other people. This is the power of public witness: the added weight of meaning that an event takes on when processed by a larger audience. 

Isn’t this why we do faith in community? Because the little glimpses of the holy that we might catch in our every day lives are sacred. But when we share them with 2 people, or 20, or 200, they become that much more significant. They bear that much more meaning, and become a lasting part of who we are, both individually and collectively. Suddenly, one small thread of melody takes on tonal complexity, a life of its own. Eventually, you’re not just the choir singing to the choir anymore. For that moment, you are the word made flesh. A community of God’s people, giving life to many through the voices of a few. 

But to tell you the truth, I hadn’t thought about our ‘flash mob’ performances in years, cool as they were at the time. No, what I remember most about those kinds of trips are, like I said, the bus ride. The journey from our home holler to a far (to us) removed city, and a glimpse of who we might be some day. I remember how the cheerleader/church kid/pageant queen/skateboard punk lines diminished as we moved out of town, and as we sang together. I remember the complex love triangles that seemed to play around the edges of that freedom, but never really amounted to much. I remember years when somebody’s parents were splitting up, or somebody was in any other manner of crisis. I remember the homework that we promised to do on the bus, forgotten the minute we rolled past exit 41. I remember having my wallet stolen one year but somehow being sustained by friends, in the form of late night pizza and vending machine runs. (Luckily, we were not sophisticated enough to sneak beer into these things. That would’ve been expensive). 

And I remember how singing in this suddenly much larger circle of strangers was powerful, significant, possibly even transformative…but somehow, not nearly as important as the people who would ride the bus home with us. Maybe sometimes, you need the distance from home–and the space of about 20 years– to realize that. 

I’m grateful for the recent public witness to something that was so formative and meaningful for so many of us. The truth is, the epic viral nature of the ‘flash mob sensation’ did not make it a shared experience. This is a song we’ve been singing forever. In fact, I like to think we are all still singing into the void. Still singing for our lives.

Can I Get a Y'all-alujah?

 HerKentucky is thrilled to welcome our newest contributor -- my friend and sorority sister Erin Smallwood Wathen. Erin is a London, KY native and an alumna of Transylvania University and Lexington Theological Seminary. Erin and her husband live in Arizona with their two small children and their dog named Van Halen. Erin is the Senior Pastor of Foothills Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in north Phoenix. Erin's  blog, Irreverin (Facebook her here) is featured as part of  the Progressive Christian Network on Patheos; her reflections on faith, family and pop culture always keep me entertained! -- HCW

I live in the midst of an amazing desert landscape. Trails from my backyard lead into the foothills of the Sonoran Mountains. Their silhouette defines the north horizon, and depending on season and time of day, they range in color from blue to brown to green, sometimes even pink. The giant saguaro cacti lift their hands in praise each morning. Most days of the year, the sky shimmers an aching, iridescent blue that your eyes can scarcely take in. It provides a backdrop for the twice daily hot air balloon shows that we enjoy from our patio. Meanwhile, the sacred smell of the scarce rain defies description. And don’t get me started on our rainbows.  Like God got a new set of magic markers and took up the spirit of a 3-year-old for the day. 

And the moon and stars that live over my house? I’m sorry, but they’re better than yours. They really are.

All this is true.  But y’all…some days I need some green grass so badly that I almost wish I played golf. (out here in PGA land, they somehow manage to find water enough for rainforest-like turf, even in the dead-ass middle of summer). Some days, I want to see fall color so badly that my family will pile in the car and drive two hours north. Some days, I want to order a biscuit and know that it did not come from the freezer. Some days, I need to say ‘y’all’ and not have it be a thing. You know?

Of course you know. You are Kentucky women. You know what it is to love a place and have it be a part of you. You might even know what it is to leave such a place. And if you know what it is to leave, then you also know what it means to take it with you.

There is, of course, much that I miss about my old Kentucky home. Beyond the biscuits and the four distinct seasons, I also miss a world in which people know (and care about) their neighbors. And I certainly miss life where people know what’s what about a certain spirit that comes from a barrel. True story: my husband and I were in a nice restaurant and we asked our server for the top shelf bourbon selection. And—I swear to God, ladies—he tried to offer us a ‘wonderful Crown Royal blend…’ (sigh). We had to learn him something about bourbon right then and there. But at least we tip well…

ANYway…I miss the place on the map where such things need not be explained. But what I’ve found in my wilderness wandering years is this: for all that I miss and even mourn about my homescape, most of what really matters is that which I’ve brought with me. And I don’t just mean an old Southern Living cook book and my grandmother’s end tables. I don’t even mean the ‘y’all’ that occasionally comes from my pulpit—unbidden and unplanned as though brought forth by the Holy Spirit. 

While my literal Kentucky accent has certainly rolled with me for this whole journey, what I really brought with me was a certain kind of voice. It is a voice that you can hear in my preaching, in my writing, and in my everyday encounters. It bears a ‘charm and disarm’ quality that allows me to say things preachers can’t always say (like, ‘yes, Jesus loves gay people. And in fact, if the church had more of them, we would have better decorations and better music—choreography, even!). It also tells the world that I’ve got just enough redneck lurking right beneath the surface, so perhaps you don’t want to mess with me.
It’s a voice that speaks the truth even when the truth is not pretty—and while I know many prophetic preachers and powerful parents who can speak the truth in love, my brand of gospel is uniquely Kentucky. It bears the tones of Wendell Berry and Loretta Lynn, echoes of Silas House and my own grandparents. And I’m pretty sure that, like Moses, I had to leave home and head out to the wilderness in order to really hear it. 

On my frequent sojourns in the desert, I take in the stark beauty of this landscape. For all its barrenness, it is a stunning and deeply spiritual place. But in my heart of hearts, I know that I brought that wilderness voice with me. It keeps me rooted for the roaming, and calls me to speak, to preach, to write the world’s truth, as it was and is to come. It is a gospel that both moves and shapes me; it grounds me and keeps me moving, all at the same time. And you’d better believe, that good news is for not just some of us, but for y’all.