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Common Hymnal and Evangelization

January 3, 2020


I grew up on Gospel music. You could blame it on my older brother’s affinity for rhythm and blues and hip hop, but when I found Gospel music, it rescued my soul. Since I became Catholic, I haven’t found that same feeling in music until I stumbled upon Common Hymnal. Made up of an eclectic group of creatives, the melodies of the music, the incredible and gut-wrenching lyrics, and the piercing (sometimes haunting) vocals will envelop any listener. I asked the founder, Malcolm du Plessis, to define the musical style of the group and his response is more than fitting: “Worship with a social conscience.” And FYI—it’s not just Gospel melodies. Common Hymnal has something for every one.

The groove of “I’ve Got the Joy” is catchy, and the vocal runs from Dee Wilson will have you stopping to play those few seconds again, thinking, “Whoa. Did he just do that?” But the best part of the song is when Wilson pauses to reflect on his mother’s guidance when faced with scarce finances when he was a child.

“She would sing songs to God about him delivering us,” Wilson said. “She was so smart that . . . she had us singing all the time.” He then drops into the catchy melody: “Greens and beans and corns and things, we gonna have some crop . . . and praise the Lord.”

Every one of their newly dropped tracks were recorded live in rented spaces outside of Nashville. You can see and hear their videos on YouTube, and each one begins with a beautiful quote. The one for this song was from Mahalia Jackson: “When you sing Gospel, you have a feeling there’s a cure for what’s wrong.”

Almost every track knocked me to my knees. The lyrics from the album are awe-inspiring, from “You’re more than the shame you were recklessly given” from “He Has Time” to “You’re the God who knows the song of every tribe and every tongue” from “Not Just for Me.”

Right now the track “How Much Longer” is on repeat several times a day—in my ears, in my house, at the gym, in the car. The gritty and soulful vocals belong to Ike Ndolo. The first time I heard it, I was in the gym. I went from crying to pumping my fist to jumping up and down to bobbing my head. It’s hard to choose what resonates with me the most, but this refrain wrecks me: “How much longer ‘til we sing a new song?”

Each track from Common Hymnal (from the album and their live recordings on YouTube) beckon me to the greatest need in my soul: authentic freedom. In a society that pushes the agenda that freedom only lies in choice, and when surrounded by an overwhelming number of opinions as to what brings the greatest freedom, I have no choice but to realize that the greatest freedom lies in returning to who I am made to be as a child of God. And who I am created to be can be diminished by the deafening cry of a world that cries out for social justice with no objective good.

The only orienting factor for true freedom from captivity is the Incarnation—the realization that through his assuming of our flesh we are invited into divinity with him. The tracks on this album peel away at the masks of false freedom that we all are more than familiar with, reminding us that the cross is for everyone and not just for me, that justice cries out for unity for all races and cultures, that God has time to heal all this brokenness but we must slow down and embrace his will (even if it takes longer than we may want).

I think that we imagine the best evangelizer to be something in particular. We have in our minds the best gender for the job, the most influencing race to carry the Gospel, the perfect sermon, the best philosophy, and maybe even the right hair color and style of clothing.

When I found Common Hymnal, I marveled at this eclectic sound, only to find even more eclectic faces and backgrounds to go along with it. I asked du Plessis a series of questions about what they are doing and where they are going, and he responded, “We aren’t trying to take over the world. We are trying to build something that is honest and believable and trustworthy.”

As evangelizers, we should share that same goal. Truth be told, we cannot create truth. We don’t posit it into existence just as we cannot falsify freedom. In a culture that quickly gets offended by the color of a person’s skin, their choice in music, the way their accent sounds, where they got their theology degree, or who their favorite Catholic thinker is . . . we must be at the forefront crying for the justice of the cross.

The justice of the cross is the inexhaustible love of God that reaches across party lines, pierces through philosophical borders, and crosses the aisles of race and religion to offer an authentic freedom that sets free the depths of the soul.

To be a good evangelizer, the melodies should pierce in the same way. If we can’t sing, we can at least listen. In fact, some of the best evangelization happens after we listen, and listening should always come first.

Common Hymnal movement mirrors this same principal. There’s no defined style of music. Songs are written and sometimes sung by someone other than the writer. People gather to listen. People step up to sing. And all that you see in this community of creatives is people rooting each other on because they have the same mission: creating space for voices that aren’t heard in mainstream Christianity.

To be honest, “mainstream Christianity” shouldn’t even be a thing. But, it is. And to be even more brutally honest, evangelizing with heart, mind, and body isn’t too mainstream these days. We create one-dimensional or two-dimensional disciples that embrace parts of that, but that isn’t what we are doing here. The goal is to have Catholic Christians that embrace the lyrics of “How Much Longer”: “When the lawless heart is the voice we’re hearing, we need freedom”—true authentic freedom in mind, body, and soul. We can only set the captives free if we have been set free ourselves.

In the tumultuous times of the Church, we cannot afford to be evangelizers that only know one type of prayer, only speak one type of spirituality, only feel comfortable in a particular liturgical rite, only like reading one apologist or theologian. We cannot afford to not prod our intellect because “we may never get it,” and we cannot wait another second to sharpen the areas of our lives where the light has begun to dim.

The ecumenical and multicultural background and sound of Common Hymnal serves as inspiration for this. The best evangelizer is Jesus and the great news is that he’s invited you into union with him. Don’t wait another second to respond with a greater fervor to “become all things to all.” The Church needs your response. The Church needs what you have. And the world needs who you are: a unique and unrepeatable child of God.