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COMMENTARY: Could music and religion be the marriage Memphis needs?

by Kirstin Cheers, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

In the biblical compendium of King David’s life, he’s characterized as a boy with many talents and responsibilities. Among those talents and responsibilities was music.

Before David famously kills Goliath, King Saul invites the boy to play his lyre (harp) exclusively for Saul to curb Saul’s frequent mood swings. Scripture says Saul had been overcome with an evil spirit inflicted by God, an impetus that would lead to Saul’s hatred of David, his comely death and David’s ascension to the throne.

“Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him,” as stated in 1 Samuel 16:23.

On the 243rd birthday of the United States of America, the 200th birthday of Memphis, one year short of the presidential election and three months away from the Memphis mayoral election, one event calls Memphians to a higher calling of patriotism: “America Bless God Independence Day Musical and Fundraiser.”

The Rev. Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., pastor of The New Olivet Worship Center, and Pinnacle Bank partner to host the event at the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education on July 3, beginning at 7 p.m. Featuring a host of choirs and a symphony orchestra with guest performers, the night is an effort to raise funds for both Visible Music College and Arrow Academy of Excellence Elementary Charter School.

“Education is a child’s introduction to what patriotism is and means,” says Dr. Andrea Mayfield, principal of Arrow Academy. “We are excited and grateful that The New Olivet Worship Center’s ‘America Bless God’ patriotic event supports our mission of “providing a nurturing learning environment that helps build a foundation for a successful future.”

There will be a multiracial, multicultural mass chorus featuring Circuit Court Judge Valerie Smith and famed soprano vocalist, Elizabeth Perry.

“God Bless America” was coined in 1918 by Irving Berlin during World War I. “America Bless God” was coined in 2001 by Whalum after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. The broader goal of the event is to “show the world that Memphians of all stripes can work together to promote positivity.”

Along with being a staunch supporter and activist for education, Whalum is also a believer in the arts and it’s transcendental power to reach across demographics and heal generational divisions. That’s why he’s a huge supporter of Visible Music College, a local college whose mission is “to produce more Christian musicians in an effort of providing more guidance, discipleship and training,” to a celebrated but often undisciplined sector of the local church.

“Visible Music College is daily grateful for our freedom in the United States of America to express our deeply held religious beliefs and platform of instruction as a Christian music college,” said president Dr. Ken Steorts. “We are humbled by the work of (New Olivet Worship Center)  in putting on ‘America Bless God’ in support of our scholarship fund for underserved students in Memphis to attend college and promote Memphis music globally.

For decades after the civil rights movement, the question of the prominence and significance of the black church has loomed in headlines, blogs, videos and dinner table conversations. There’s more news about pastors buying jet airplanes and stealing money from their already impoverished parishioners. There’s the begging question of “where do millennials go to church” and if younger generations will even subscribe to religion. Can whites and blacks do Sunday services together? Can integration and unity and racial reconciliation and social justice have space in the church at all?

And when violence occurs in predominantly poor and communities of color, the church is sought out even more.

Dr. Whalum sure thinks so.

“The way to change our violent and amoral trajectory is to help one child at a time,” said Whalum in a Facebook post.

It’s worth noting that the music David played to curb Saul’s schizophrenia wasn’t enough to prevent Saul from trying to kill David later in the story. And it’s David’s warriorhood that lands him the throne. But music got him in the kingdom.

Memphis music continues to permeate national airwaves, music houses, clubs and award shows as quick as lightning during a Mid-South thunderstorm. We’ve witnessed the power of music: from Issac Hayes to Aretha Franklin and the droves of fans who visit Graceland every year.

Could music and religion be the marriage Memphis needs to see a renewal of justice and progression it’s been longing for since 1968?

If we’re David, then who is Saul?

Maybe racism.

Maybe poverty.

Maybe apathy

Maybe disenfranchisement.

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