Dear Friends,

Since Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has so much going on, I’m not sure when he has time to sleep.

Professor Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Most people know him from the popular program, “Finding Your Roots,” which has been broadcast on PBS since 2012. In each episode, celebrities learn about their ancestral histories, discovered by a combination of paper trails, DNA analysis, and forensic genealogy.

“Finding Your Roots” is only one of Dr. Gates’ projects. He’s been the executive producer, host, and writer of “The Black Church,” in which he traces the 400-year history of how Black people have worshiped in America.

His most recent offering is, “Gospel,” a program that honors the legacy of Gospel music in America. Trinity’s staff is tired of hearing me tell them to watch the four-part series, so I’m expanding my evangelistic efforts to you – the readers of Trinity Topics. My message is simple: Spend the four hours it will take you to watch all four episodes. You’ll be glad you did. It’s streaming on PBS Passport, or you can find it here:

As a lifelong Episcopalian, I didn’t grow up with Gospel music in church. We sang hymns from the Episcopal Church’s hymnals and anthems from the English Choral Tradition. This genre of music is beautiful, and I will love it to the end of my life. For years, this was the only music one heard in the Episcopal Church. “The Republican party at prayer” is the way Americans used to snicker at the Episcopal Church, the snobby, worldly US branch of the Anglican communion. But the church, like this country, has changed. It’s becoming multi-cultural – thank goodness! – more open and inclusive. And that includes the music we sing.

My introduction to Gospel music happened when I served my first interim assignment at St. Andrew’s Church in Cincinnati. The Director of Music there was Mrs. Irma Tillery, a force of nature and one of the editors of our church’s African American Hymnal, Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Although Trinity doesn’t have these hymnals in pew racks, Chelsie and Grace draw music from the book all the time – songs like “Precious Lord, take my hand,” and “I come to the garden alone.” But Mrs. Tillery took things a step further. She designated the first Sunday of every month as Gospel Sunday. On Gospel Sunday, Mrs. Tillery turned over the keyboard to Jerome, picked up her tambourine (although she was 80, she still played a mean tambourine), and sang in the Gospel Choir. Like the choir here at Trinity, the Gospel Choir at St. Andrew’s regularly brought down the house.

I’ve learned a lot about the origins of Gospel music from watching Dr. Gates’ series – about the emergence of Gospel music in Chicago and then, Detroit – and about the key figures in its development: Thomas A Dorsey, Jr., Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland, Sister Rosetta Tharp, Aretha Franklin, the Winans, Andre Crouch and many others; and about its power to comfort, inspire, and empower.

If you’re looking for a different way to observe Lent, “Gospel” might be just the thing.

And again, when does Henry Louis Gates sleep? All these PBS programs and teaching undergraduate and graduate courses at Harvard. Wow! I look forward to the next project he has in the pipeline.


Stephen Applegate

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