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.