February is African American History Month. As this important time of the year approaches, I’m mindful of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” one of my favorite hymns. I remember learning this song in second grade at Mount View Elementary School in Omaha, Neb., when it was introduced to me as the “Negro National Anthem.” Even as a child, I realized that this song’s words spoke to generational scars that ran deep in the African American community.

Most of us have heard this song many times, and it has been included in our worship resources for several decades. In the Lutheran Book of Worship, this hymn (562) is listed under “Celebration, Jubilation.” In the African American Lutheran hymnal This Far by Faith (296) and in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (841), it’s found in the “Praise, Thanksgiving” section. In Lead Me Guide Me, the African American Hymnal of the Catholic Church, you’ll find the hymn (649) under the heading “Social Concern.”

It’s obvious to me that this anthem is all three of these descriptions. In the poetry of its verses, I witness our God, who is very present in our joys, as well as our spiritual, physical and generational hurts. Embedded in these words is a God who is embodied in and with us through our shouts of celebrating and our cries for justice.

Witness the powerful lyrics:

Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.

Let our rejoicing rise high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died; yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet come to the place for which our parents sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears have been watered; we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; thou who hast by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee; lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee; shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.

In these verses, writer James Weldon Johnson presents the harsh reality of marginalized people. He speaks of weathered generations, tired souls and crying hearts. These are a people who are mindful of the pain and tears of the past, yet stand on the strength and faith that are born in adversity. The words remind me of the interconnectedness that our lives have with all of humanity.

We’re able to see the forgotten ones crying out for freedom and liberty. We can see a people who are confident that, through their raised voices, heaven will hear and echo the freedom cry of God’s people. We can see people who have been mistreated and oppressed but find reason to rejoice and petition our God for justice. These children of God hold tightly to the hope that sustains them as they look toward a brighter day for future generations.

We see those who desire spiritual fulfillment and seek God’s guidance as they walk life’s paths. We embrace protected people who find shelter from the scorching heat of oppression and injustice under God’s mighty, nurturing hand. We unite with these faithful people who are committed to God and their community. We recognize members who are part of the body of Christ.

And if we look very closely, we may even see our own reflection.

Angela T. !Khabeb
Angela T. !Khabeb is a pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. She enjoys an active home life with her husband and three children. 

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