Usually in present North American culture, we celebrate events and times by music and motion — song and dance. A wedding celebration naturally culminates in a dance; funerals and memorial services move from song to hymn. It was different then, and quite uplifting, to attend a literary event of celebration. Last night, as part of commemorating 175 years of existence in Hamilton, Stewart Memorial Church began their homecoming weekend with a gala of presentations of a literary nature.
The church was founded as part of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and remains a predominantly Black congregation. Perhaps because of the ties to African slaves as well as more recent Caribbean migrations, this celebration by word was offered to the congregation and the public. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the concept worked.
It worked for several reasons. The writing presented was a mixture of both substance and style. There were presentations, authors reading excerpts from their books, that were historical and accurately researched; there were poets spinning words and images only grounded in experience; there were storytellers who took the factual to build stories that tugged at the spiritual and emotional parts of us. But the most notable aspect of the church’s literary evening of celebration was that it did not focus on the church, its history, its well-known members past and present. Instead it presented the culture of all the peoples it encompasses.
Nor did the words of celebration only recall the past. The past was dealt with in story and history; too, there were poems and stories of the present. From the poetry especially, joy and hope for the imagination. Commemoration of yesterday, the solidarity of today, the brightness of tomorrow: all were interwoven into the celebration. And rightly so.
Today the celebration continues, this time with music and song. Tomorrow a more solemn service with a guest preacher.
And it began with the words. Sound familiar? “In the beginning was the Word … ” (John 1:1)