A Reflection on “A Poor Wayfaring Stranger” and the Story it Tells

Lately I cannot get enough of the haunting melodies and harmonies of the song, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” Many think it’s a folk song. But historical record shows that it’s a reworked Black spiritual song. W.E.B. Du Bois calls them “Sorrow Songs,” and talks about how this song in particular, like many of that genre, has a double meaning. It speaks of heaven and eternal hope for sure, but also of the hope of liberty now. When the singer identifies as being a “poor wayfaring stranger while traveling through this world of woe,” and “going to that bright world” and “going over Jordan,” the poor wayfaring stranger is also singing of going North where liberty is possible. The way will be” rough and steep” while “dark clouds surround” the poor wayfaring stranger, but the promise of God both now and forever, is sure, even if the stranger doesn’t make it. 

What can’t be lost is the obvious feeling of displacement of the singer. The singer isn’t just a “stranger,” but a “poor wayfaring stranger.” It is clear that the singer doesn’t feel a sense of belonging and welcome here, but believes it’s possible and rests assured that even if they do not find it here, they will find it with the Savior.

As I’ve researched this song throughout the week I find it ironic that it’s been co-opted largely by County music and Folk music, and mostly White musicians. It’s as if the double meaning has been lost and it’s interpreted as a song only about heaven. But it isn’t a song *for* me (or them), but is a song *about* our collective history and the suffering my ancestors caused, even my Christian ones, to make Black and Brown skinned brothers and sisters feel so isolated and excluded, even our Christian ones. We should sing it, in my opinion, but with its full meaning in mind.

It is a song that teaches me what *hope* looks like in the midst of the reign of sin and death. It is a song that moves me to *humility* as it tells me the truth. In that way, sets me free from myself and my tendency to look passed the past and look toward the present and future with clearer eyes. 

In the first post I reflected on Poor Wayfaring Stranger and the story it tells. In this post I reflect on the impact of the story.

It all so disheartening to think of how we receive this part of history today. I’m reminded of the likes of Gov. DeSantis and those who promote the agenda of controlling the truth of history, if not outright deny it, to protect White comfort and a preferred sentimentality for an optimistic “unifying” narrative. It’s sad that I and my White brothers and sisters are being presented as so fragile that the discomfort the truth of history brings is just too much to bear. Many of us can not seem to grasp that it’s our denial that holds us captive and discomforts our soul with anxiety, fear, and avoidance. But it is the truth that will set us free and bring us peace, even if at first it must discomfort. It seems we may just be that fragile.

So, for White pastors supporting this agenda, it’s a tragedy and a terrible precedent that, if held with consistency, will compromise the gospel. Speaking of sin and calling congregations to repentance must now be set aside lest they make their congregants uncomfortable. No longer will they be able to promote “color blindness” when a policy they support that explicitly protects a “race” does so on the basis of racilaization. Gone will be the days of “comforting the afflicted” and “afflicting the comfortable” because we will raise up a form of real-world discipleship that more concerned with being coddled than confronted. Humbly, pastorally and prophetically shatter the fragility with the truth and trust God with the consequences.

As to my reflection of the song, I owe Dr. Arthur Sutherland for pointing me Du Bois’ work on Sorrow Songs.

About Fred

Fred came to serve greater Williamsburg and WCC as lead pastor in October of 2010 and is grateful to be a part of the family. He is a husband, father, certified trauma professional, S.T.A.R. (strategies for trauma awareness & resilience) practitioner, community organizer, TEDx alum, founder of 3e Restoration, Inc. and co-owner of Philoxenia Culture LLC. He received his B.S. in Ministry/Bible at Amridge University and his Master’s of Religious Education in Missional Leadership from Rochester University. Currently he is a candidate for a Doctorate of Ministry in Contextual Theology in at Northern Seminary in Chicago. Fred has also served as an adjunct professor for Rochester University and Regent University where taught courses in philosophy, ethics, leadership, pastoral care, intro to Christianity, and ethnography. He has also served as a guest lecturer on the subjects of racialized cultural systems, poverty, and missiology at various universities, such as William & Mary and Oklahoma Christian University. Fred has authored on book (Racialized Cultural Systems, Social Displacement and Christian Hospitality) and several curriculum offerings, including The FloorPlan: Living Toward Restoration & Resilience. Fred enjoys hanging out with his family anytime, anywhere. He is deeply grateful for how God graciously works through the Church in all her various forms, despite our brokenness. He is passionate about seeing the last, least, and lonely of every neighborhood, city and nation experience God’s in-breaking kingdom, and come to know Jesus as King. Oh, and his favorite season is Advent and Christmas. Fred is a founding member of the board of directors for Virginia Racial Healing Institute, a member of the leadership team for Williamsburg's local chapter of Coming to the Table, and a member of Greater Williamsburg Trauma-Informed Community Network's Racial Trauma Committee and Training Committee.
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2 Responses to A Reflection on “A Poor Wayfaring Stranger” and the Story it Tells

  1. Steve Koziol says:

    I think that it is important to remember that no one ethnic group can claim the moral high ground, when it comes to racial oppression and discrimination in USA history.
    Remember the shameful treatment of ethnic Japanese during WWII; the horrific treatment of Chinese, to the present day. And most shamefully, the ongoing mistreatment of Native Americans, which followed a government sanctioned program of ethnic cleansing and outright theft of their homelands! Also, if “reparations “ are to be discussed, the First Nations should be given first consideration.
    So I think it is important to include several groups when this issue is discussed. Not doing so is to once again do the others yet another injustice.


    • Fred says:

      Hey bro. Thanks for commenting. Admittedly, I am not following you entirely by what you mean when you say one “ethnic” group. I am also not sure what you mean by ‘moral high ground,’ but I will offer some reflections nonetheless. Forgive me if they are off the mark.

      It may be said that no ethnic group has a “moral high ground,” but it is clear in history that persons of European descent have always been standing on the top of the hill. Your examples are helpful. Speaking of Japanese Americans today is timely, given that Feb. 19 marks the day Japanese Americans were taken from homes and jobs and placed in camps due to Pres. Roosevelt’s Order supported by U.S. leaders. If going back farther you are referring to The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 signed by Pres. Arthur and passed by U.S. leaders, and the way it paved the road toward the violence and exclusion of Chinese Immigrants and Chinese Americans, then I agree there. If by Native American you mean the way they are spoken of in our founding documents, and founding fathers, or those who Pres. Jackson ordered to walk the “trail of tears” and face another round of genocide or even to this present day, their extraordinary poverty due to unkept promises, I agree.

      If we speak of ethnicity in terms of those of European descent, then it’s a different story. We look back and see that those making all the laws that profoundly impacted the groups mentioned above are “Caucasian,” white-skinned persons of European decent. Oddly, since this Nation’s founding the only demographic who have not needed additional laws passed in order to enjoy an additional measure of freedom promised by the founding documents are those described as Euro-Anglo, English (Caucasian) land-owning males. We could even turn to the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787 and ask, to what standard of human body was the “3/5th” measuring against; three-fifths in comparison to what? Three-fifths in comparison to Caucasian body–a White body. It’s just a historical fact. But we don’t do well with facts these days.

      So it looks to me that in our Nation there has long been a majority of persons of various ethnicities yet described as one specific race of people who fit the likes of Roosevelt, Jackson, and all who struck the three-fifths compromise deal dating back to ten of the first twelve presidents who were enslavers. Caucasians have long held the power to write laws, establish systems and institutions, and pave the way toward culture-making. From 1776 (or even before) we know it wasn’t Africans who were little more than property. We know it wasn’t Natives who lost their land and eventually became little more than property. We know wasn’t Chinese Immigrants who were shipped here under false pretense but excluded from freedoms. We know it wasn’t even Irish immigrants of 1715 who, because they weren’t English–even the Irish Ulster Settlers had to be granted land in 1718 by the Governor of Massachusetts and were still treated as Immigrants. We certainly also know it wasn’t the Japanese Americans of the 20th century. It wasn’t even Caucasian women because it wasn’t until Seneca Falls in 1848 when the ball started rolling down the hill of liberation for them that they would eventually have laws passed that allowed them to enjoy the same measure of freedom as Caucasian males. As difficult as it would be for us to figure who held the moral high ground it is clear historically who at least stood on the highest ground despite the morals.

      As for reparations, I don’t remember mentioning that here. But if be reparations you mean what it literally means, i.e. to repair, then sure. Our Nation definitely has a lot of damage to repair, especially the generational damage inflicted upon non-White Bodies of Cultures. What saddest of all is that much of this damage was done baptized in Christianity.


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