Finding Healing in Gospel Music

By

Although I haven’t attended a church service in years, the music came back to me one Sunday morning. While I was washing the dishes, a hymn tickled my throat until the words slowly crawled out of my mouth. I let them vibrate through me. I took my time. I paced through the lyrics, allowing the rhythm to consume me. It loosened the tension in my body. It grounded me. This time, I didn’t laugh at how the words dragged out. They needed to drag out. The soapy suds softened my skin and the music, as I climbed each scale, lulled me. It reminded me that hymns were passed down generation after generation for my specific healing and comfort. Words that my ancestors sung to cope under white supremacy have the same power for me, and I can carry them wherever I go.

As a teenager, my favorite part of church was the singing. I loved the music and singing along made me feel like a good Christian. Gospel was a space of Black vulnerability—a place where I could feel the breadth of my emotions without judgment. I let the lyrics wash over me. I felt forgiven with “I Am Redeemed.” Grateful with “Let It Rain.” Joyful with almost any high-tempo Kirk Franklin number.

Every week, my family would pile into the back of the church. Dressed in my Sunday best, I fidgeted on the scratchy pews, waiting to see what the choir was going to sing. Although each choir cycled through their set, some Sundays they would debut new songs. I loved the adult choir because my granny sang in it. Every solo she had, I rocked my body, clapped my hands, and sang along. One of the few female tenors in the choir, she gave me a deep appreciation for the lower register. The rich earthiness of the voice. Smoky. Soothing. I felt it in my chest.

I heard the same deep richness in hymnals. When we were younger, we thought about Cedric the Entertainer’s “I love the Lord” joke whenever we had to sing along to a hymn. The deacon stood at the altar and started to drag out the “I.” Mouths filled with hard peppermint, my sisters and I would glance at each other. We rolled our eyes and stifled our giggles trying to drag out each line repeated from the deacon, both amused at our little inside joke that got us through the monotony of church and annoyed at how long this song didn’t have to be.

Singing, for me, was a personal experience. It offered a chance for my internal struggles with self-worth to connect to a message outside of myself. For my pain to be seen and validated. “Spirit Fall Down” was a song that always broke me. When the first few notes hit, tears streamed down my face. The plea for Spirit to hear us, to save us. I felt the cracks in Ms. Catherine’s voice as she sang. I wore those cracks. I felt like I needed divine intervention to help me get through school, through life. I felt measured by teachers who accused me of not being smart enough to make the grades I was making, boys who picked every other girl before me, and a world that reminded me no one cared about Black girls. I felt like I was never enough. Gospel music gave my body the space to work through all the emotions I had to pretend weren’t there. I wasn’t pressured to be stoic. I was permitted to release. I was permitted to be.

As much as singing was personal, it was also public. There were songs that demanded our participation. Songs like “Stand” wanted us to publicly show gratitude for the ways that God has carried us through. Although most people obliged, some would stand and rock to the music, frowning at those who shouted and looking down at those of us who were still sitting. It made me feel uncomfortable—that my personal relationship with Spirit was something I had to perform for others, as though I couldn’t call myself a good Christian or even a Christian if I wasn’t willing to stand up in front of everyone for God.

At the end of service, we gathered at the altar. Altar calls were a time to come together in song and prayer. It was a reminder that healing was communal. As much as I wanted to heal on my own, I needed others. Outside these church walls, we were all oppressed, beaten down, murdered. But inside our church, we were free to cry out against the injustices we faced daily. Here, men weren’t forced to be resilient. Women didn’t have to be strong. We were free to wail, shout, and move however we needed to get the hurt out of our bodies. The church was a place where our pain was heard and our suffering validated.

Negro spirituals taught me the art of repetition. How lyrics feel different each time the line is sung. How they situate in the body differently. I understand why we need to moan the I, the Love, the The, and the Lord. The world demands so much of our time; we need to reclaim some of that for ourselves. We need the time to feel those vibrations, to feel our bodies that have belonged to our teachers, our bosses, our parents, our partners—to everyone but ourselves. Gospel is one of the few places where Black groaning is not only allowed; it’s encouraged. In church, Black people can groan and cry out as long and as loud as we want, and our cries are heard. Where the tallest man decked out in the sharpest suit could fall to his knees crying, and the mothers would rub his back to soothe him. Where a woman with a pressed two-piece skirt set, matching gloves, and a hat could catch the Holy Ghost and run around the church in circles, and the congregation would cheer her on. Where nervous children could stumble over a lyric and their mistake was forgiven.

Gospel allows us space for spiritual awakening and communal healing. Although the church was not always perfect, I long for the time when I could look to my neighbor, who understood what it was like to walk through the world as I do. Church was a safe space to turn to after being the only Black person in a white office or dealing with microaggressions from classmates. A place where others understood the hurt when we turned on the news and would see yet another Black life violently taken from the world. I miss the music that acted both as affirmation and guide. I still crave that space that didn’t police my cries.

Now that I’m distanced from family and friends, spirituals remind me that I’m never alone. Whether I’m washing dishes or sitting at my ancestral altar, the hymns that pour out of my soul connect me to my ancestors. They are the same words that comforted them in their times of struggle. At any time, I can tap into my rich legacy of resistance, survival, and hope with a hearty note because my voice, my spirit remembers that old-time religion. It was good for my dear old mother, it was good for my dear old father, and it’s good enough for me.

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Rumpus original art by Isis Davis-Marks.


Leah Nicole Whitcomb is a proud Mississippian and VONA alum. Her writing explores Black womanhood in Deep South. Leah co-hosts the Hoodoo Plant Mamas podcast where she discusses Black spirituality, pop culture, and growing up in Mississippi. She is currently working on her debut novel, When Black Girls Break. Find her on Twitter at @leahnwhitcomb. More from this author →