Pastor Helen Wright reflects on the role of music, art and poetic words in the 2020 #ChangetheHeart prayer services and the the power of the arts in accompanying social change.
“Where are all the protest songs?”
I’ve heard this several times recently. Looking back at history, alongside every significant social change or revolution is a plethora of songs, paintings, stories that capture the zeitgeist of that moment. Melodies, images and plot twists that capture something of the cries of the heart, the state of the soul, the longing for something different, something more. January 2020, I was involved in the #ChangeTheHeart prayer services, along with over 2,000 Christians across these lands now called Australia. It felt like a moment in history, a turning of the tide, a change. And so I asked, what’s the song of this moment, the spirit of these times, in this longing for change in 2020, in these lands we now call Australia? Where are all the protest songs?
The arts often accompany social change because, as Aboriginal Christian Leaders, Aunty Jean Phillips has been praying for decades and as Brooke Prentis so clearly articulates, significant change requires a change of heart. This is the very language by which the arts also operates. Often bypassing the brain, the arts affect us by seeping into our whole beings, helping us to feel and know things in a deeper way than simply having knowledge. We come to change our minds and act differently, not simply because we’ve heard something, but because we’ve let it affect us and we feel differently about it. We’ve embodied a new way of being.
And so whether people noticed it or not (and perhaps they didn’t!) creativity played a significant role in the #ChangetheHeart prayer services in the lead up to Jan 26. Either through the skilful editing by Biz Adams on screen or delivered live in person, Aunty Jean Phillips (in her 80s with over 60 years of her life dedicated to ministry) drew us all into a story, one that started well before us and invites us into being key players into the future. Beautifully crafted words in speech, prayers, and poetry (or some might call liturgy) by Brooke Prentis pointed us to a God who is above and beyond and calls out something more from us. Clapsticks and silence still ringing in our ears, calling us to lament. Poetic prayers by Lea Maslen and Bianca Manning helped us place ourselves within the story: non-Aboriginal, Aboriginal, looking to our God together. The printed artworks in cloth of Aunty Glenny Naden and Kristy Naden and the two crosses painted by Stevie Jean O’Chin, speak loudly of a culture alive and full of colour and symbol and story.
At #ChangetheHeart in Adelaide, at the request of Brooke Prentis, a live artwork was created during the service by artist Sarah Keane. Taking shape as we journeyed together, a human heart emerged in the centre of an Australian map leading to hands being held and paths of truth being followed. This artwork then journeyed on to be part of some of the other spaces where people gathered.
At some of the services, at the ‘heart’ of the space was a sculpture by Chidzey and Kiki Tse, a wooden heart with native plants ‘breaking through’, creating new life in the heart. Originally created for “Creative Conversations with Land” in Sydney Fringe 2019, it was a response to hearing Brooke share about the story of these lands, a prophetic picture of the #ChangetheHeart movement. An image etched into our minds.
At each of the services we were invited to embody an action, by bringing a symbol of our hearts forward and returning to our seats with a ‘truth-telling’ to be known and shared. In that moment we all created a dance, a movement of people, a picture of what it looks like to not remain stuck and comfortable in our pews, but to engage our hearts and move into the freedom of knowing and sharing the truth. As we walked we sang one of my songs, ‘Watch and Pray’, as a meditation. We sensed the call from Jesus, as he said it to the disciples: to be alert, to see what’s going on around us, to pray, to hold the heaviness of the suffering, the pain, and the wrong-doing in our hearts, just as he did in Gethsemane. And to be reminded, we too are called into the way of the cross that involves a giving up, a surrender, a cost.
And when Brooke finished her message she invited us to learn to sing a new song together, and that’s what we did. I wrote ‘Song of Freedom’ in recent times flowing out of journeying with Brooke as part of this movement. I’m not sure I knew it at the time, but I think I wrote a protest song. A song for this moment. And it was incredible for me to sing it live with more than a thousand voices all over these lands, knowing that it was simultaneously being sung by many more in other places. It’s time to rise up and take a stand for justice. It’s time to let the truth set us free and sing it from the rooftops!
And yet we didn’t just sing new songs, we also sang old songs. Songs that are still alive within us. As I invited people at the services I was at to sing ‘We Are Gathering Together’, I reminded them that it’s a song important to Aboriginal Christian communities all across Australia. And one of the most precious moments for me was when Uncle Nelson Varcoe with Aunty Francie Injkatji and Aunty Audrey Brumby (the Anangu Aunties), from Adelaide Congress Ministry, joined us on stage to sing the song in Pitjantjatjara. This old song, indeed rich with story and full of heart, connected to memories and living on in the gathered people now.
And finally we joined our voices to sing the old hymn ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ and in Sydney with the booming sound of the cathedral organ and 600 or more voices. As a contemporary worship leader, I’m not always enamoured by hymns. But somehow through the journey of singing this old song across these lands over time, the beauty of it has seeped its way into my whole being. Mostly because one of Australia’s most senior Aboriginal Christian leaders has sung it across decades in circumstances that are beyond my comprehension and embodied its message. And what I do know is that if we’re going to get out of this incredible mess we’re in, if we are to see healing and hope, then we need to answer Aunty Jean’s call to get on our knees and bring ‘everything to God in prayer’. Perhaps from there we can learn to sing a new song and live into a different story.
Helen Wright is a singer/songwriter and the Creativity and Justice Pastor at Newtown Mission.
The track and chart for Helen's song 'Song of Freedom' is now available for download here to sing it in your communities.
And follow Helen's music @heartcriesworship
The artworks above are not to be used without the artists permission.