The Rev. Jason Shelton couldn’t get from his computer to the piano keyboard fast enough.
Ever since a denominational commission in June 2005 had declared that Unitarian Universalism’s survival may depend on figuring out what holds all our theological diversity together, Shelton had been wanting to create a musical piece out of the Six Sources. Not the Seven Principles most Unitarian Universalists are familiar with, but the Sources that Unitarian Universalism draws from—the bit of text after the Principles.
What he needed was a great lyricist. So that fall Shelton, then music director of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, had cold-called the Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. They’d never met or even talked before, but he loved the lyrics Gibbons had written for “Lady of the Seasons’ Laughter,” hymn #51 in the Singing the Living Tradition hymnal.
“Sure,” she said right away. “I’d really love to. But I can’t in the next month.” She was getting ready for a five-month sabbatical, tying up enough loose ends to fringe a minister’s stole. “I wanted time off to catch my breath, and I wanted to remain open to things that might come up,” Gibbons remembers.
That night Gibbons couldn’t sleep. The next morning in the shower the words to “In the Beginning,” the first movement of the Sources cantata, came to her in a rush—short phrases and single words, impressionistic and abstract, stabbing at what it might have been like to have been present at the birth of the universe.
She zapped it down to Nashville by email. “Oh, my God,” Shelton called out as he read it. There were far more words than he could use, but immediately he heard the music he wanted to set to it: modern intervals and rhythms, tricky tritones and triplets, chorus and orchestra moving from dissonance to resolution, piano arpeggios sprinkled over it all like stardust, and mighty percussion building to a big bang. He went to his piano and started playing.
There were no committee meetings, no conversations with colleagues, no debates about what the Sources meant or what they should say instead. Just a combustive collaboration between two ministers, two artists.
“That kind of collaboration is what composers, artists, musicians, hope to find,” Shelton says. “Kendyl and I had this magical connection—well, she might not say that because she’s a hard-core humanist!”
“It was just a great joy,” Gibbons concurs, “one of those things where you have this connection with this person and go right to the middle of their creative juices.”
Sources: A Unitarian Universalist Cantata is the seven-movement work that Shelton and Gibbons cocreated without ever meeting, working solely over email and phone lines for nine months in 2005 and 2006. This June, an eighty-voice choir and twenty-piece orchestra made up of members of the UU Musicians Network—music directors, singers, and players from all over the country—will perform it at the General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The idea for the cantata was born out of Shelton’s conviction that the Sources should have a more prominent place within Unitarian Universalism. “We have this marvelous statement about theological diversity in the Sources, but it largely gets ignored,” he says. “Most of our folks can talk about the Principles in glowing terms, but they’re a statement of covenant among congregations and how we will be in the world. The statement about what we believe is a statement about diversity, and that’s the Sources.”
Sometimes UUs will omit or speak dismissively of theological traditions that we actually claim as our Sources. That bothers Shelton, who was called by the Nashville church as associate minister for music this spring.
“There are differences between us that are real and substantive, and if we let them, they could tear us apart,” he continues. “If we don’t engage with what it means to be Christian in a UU setting, or humanist in a pluralist setting, then we are lacking the tools to be in community with one another. Instead of watering everything down to the theological least common denominator, we need to be in integrity with each of our Sources—not watering down Christianity so the humanist feels comfortable with it, or watering down humanism so the pagans feel comfortable with it. Sometimes there will be things that express your theology and make me feel uncomfortable, but I will grow spiritually by being in community with you, who sees things differently.”
For Shelton, the way to engage was through music.
The lyric Gibbons sent next was for the Fourth Source, “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” The same thing happened. As he read her words onscreen, Shelton was again leaping to his piano keyboard, already singing the refrain, “God of jus-tice, God of mer-cy, God of ev-erlasting love,” punching the syllables in gospel time. He could already see the choir swaying behind a belt-it-out gospel soloist.
For this lyric Gibbons had combined teachings from Psalms and the Gospels—all the while highly conscious she wasn’t speaking out of her own tradition, she acknowledges. “But she has enough respect for these traditions to know what they say, and what’s important and foundational to our Jewish and Christian UUs,” Shelton says. “That integrity is what makes the music work. She said something so perfectly within that tradition, with honor and beauty—and I know this stuff—it just practically screamed off the page.”
A former M.Div. student under A.J. Levine, the Jewish feminist New Testament scholar—yes, that’s right—at Vanderbilt, Shelton knew this was tenuous territory. A gospel tune felt right as Shelton thought of “how heavily [the African American] community has drawn upon the story of the liberation of the Hebrew people for their own strength and solace,” he says.
Yet he also knew that for Jews, the term “Judeo-Christian” can feel offensive—simple chemistry: if you mix Judaism and Christianity, you get Christianity, which claims to replace Jewish law. “I wanted to honor both the Jewish and Christian traditions without catering to the Christian supercessionist ideology that has been such a destructive force throughout the last 2,000 years,” Shelton says.
So Shelton began the piece with a minor-key barucha, a Hebrew blessing to the “Eternal God . . . Source of creation and its wonders,” blending seamlessly into Gibbons’s paean to the Twenty-Third Psalm and Jesus’s message of the power of love.
At the June 2006 premiere of the cantata by Shelton’s choir, the deep-voiced Nashville R&B DJ and member of the congregation, Tony Jackson, nailed the gospel solo. At the dress rehearsal, just hours after the songwriting duo had finally met for the first time, Shelton ran the fourth movement straight through and turned around to see what Gibbons thought.
She was sobbing. “Sign me up,” she got out between her tears. “That would convert me right there.”
Not every movement had that first-draft magic. With five movements done, Shelton reviewed the musical styles he’d used so far: aggressive modern classical, meditative chant, gospel, new age, Broadway. What he didn’t have was a Latin jazz groove. And Latin American liberation theology would mesh with the social-justice theme of the Second Source: “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”
Originally Gibbons had written the lyrics for the second movement with a dilemma and resolution in each verse. But this one didn’t sing off the page for Shelton, in a Latin or any other beat. “I had to say, ‘I don’t even know you personally, how can I say, This doesn’t work for me—let’s start over’? She was so wonderful and open, and sent me new text the next day.”
The result is “Transformation,” a languid, syncopated tune, overlaid with a smooth jazz solo that makes your shoulders want to dip to the beat.
Once they’d finished all Six Sources, the pair realized the work still needed a concluding movement to answer the question: What keeps these theological roots from splitting apart like an old mulberry tree? What holds them together?
During her sabbatical Gibbons had been visiting African American churches on the north side of Minneapolis on Sunday mornings. Her own church has long had its own orchestra, and the congregation enjoys vocalists at its services but doesn’t go in for singing from the pews. “I just loved it,” she says. “Their choirs sing all the time, constantly in the background. One morning the choir and congregation were repeating this simple refrain, and five or six teenagers got up and did this rap thing, about Jesus, of course. And I thought, That’s what we need to do for a finale. But do we have the nerve?”
She called down to Nashville. “I know what we have to do: hip hop.”
You could have heard a pin drop at the Shelton house, he recalls. “Uh, really? OK, now I’m nervous, Kendyl.” Up till then he’d been calling all the musical shots.
“Well, I’m not writing it! A fifty-year-old white woman has no business writing rap.”
“So OK, let’s reach out to the young adult UU leadership and see who’s out there. Who are the young hip hop artists in Unitarian Universalism?”
A search for a new lyricist was on. The name that came back was Justice Whitaker, a leader of Five.12 Collective, which creates films and hip-hop music with a message. Whitaker hadn’t been involved with church since leaving home in 2000 to travel, then to attend New York University. As a child he’d attended the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Luis Obispo County, California, and he’d loved being involved in district and national organizations for youth and people of color as a teen. He definitely wanted to be part of this—UU hip hop.
For the concluding movement, called “The Promise,” Gibbons wrote a refrain in the style she’d heard on Minneapolis’s north side. From there, completely on faith, the songwriters turned the reins over to the younger artist. Shelton kept asking if Whitaker could send some text; he’d never really heard his work.
To be honest, Whitaker admits, he worked out his rhyme on the plane down to Nashville. Spontaneity, or “freestyling,” is all part of the craft. “I’m definitely a hip hop performer,” he says. “I can rap about anything, at any time, which I think is one of the powerful things about hip hop music. It’s really just a collection of insights and social observations, a string of them put together.”
At the dress rehearsal, Shelton turned to him. “OK. Let’s hear what you’re going to do.”
Whitaker started by amping up the crowd with a lot of amens—improvising on the Brotha Justice alter ego he uses in a lot of his music. Then he spun out six verses of hip hop on the Six Sources. “He starts doing his thing, and everyone in my choir just went bonkers,” Shelton recalls.
Shelton and Gibbons set out to present each theological tradition present in the Sources with integrity and respect, they say. In the end, they realized they wanted to do the same with musical diversity, using styles that never play together on the same stage, and this was the final piece they needed. Gibbons’s musical instinct was right: Setting “The Promise” to the high-energy music of young people was the finishing touch.
The two songwriters actually represent a fair amount of the diversity within Unitarian Universalism. She’s a fifty-three-year-old “born-inner,” raised in the Camp Springs, Maryland, church planted by followers of the Rev. A. Powell Davies in the 1960s, and today one of the leading humanist ministers in the UUA. He’s a thirty-five-year-old “come-inner,” whose path led him through Roman Catholic seminary and a Franciscan order before he embraced Unitarian Universalism ten years ago.
Kendyl Gibbons calls herself “a child of the merger,” the first truly UU generation. She remembers that most of the adults at Davies Memorial were like her parents—raised “lukewarm Protestant,” which they rejected by the time they were in college, then started looking for a religious community when they had kids of their own. “The adults would sit around a banquet table,” she remembers, “listening to Davies preach, with this tinny speaker hooked up to telephone wires” to pick up sermons transmitted from All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. “About half the time the thing would break down. I can’t imagine how compelling that preaching must have been for people to put up with that.”
Her mother always taught first grade in the religious education program—Gibbons remembers being the tester for craft projects like painting a yardstick gold and writing the Golden Rule on it—and each year her mom rewrote the lyrics from a Broadway musical to perform as a fundraiser. “So I grew up with the idea that anybody could rewrite lyrics,” she says. She was thrilled when Shelton set the lyrics to the Fifth Source, the humanist voice of the doubter, in a Broadway ballad with a soprano solo written, he says, “for the pure, light tone currently en vogue on stage.”
Many in the church adopted a humanist worldview and were happy to have escaped their more traditional religious backgrounds. “Their attitude was, Weren’t we lucky we didn’t have to struggle with ideas like God and prayer,” she remembers. “It was a journey for me to say, What is this religion stuff? Can we talk about this more?”
Fascinated by Christian women mystics, Zen teachers, and Taoist poets, she went on to get her M.Div. at the University of Chicago and D.Min. at Meadville Lombard Theological School, served as the minister of the DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church in Naperville, Illinois, for fifteen years, and has been at the Minneapolis church for the past ten.
From an early age Jason Shelton felt called to ministry. To the altar-boy son of an Irish-Italian mother from North Jersey—“The Sopranos are my people,” he says—ministry could mean only one thing: Catholic priesthood.
Saint Meinrad, the Benedictine seminary he attended amidst the rolling farms of southern Indiana, quickly ferreted out Shelton’s musical skills—trumpet, drums, guitar, singing, writing. So he was made music director, in charge of music for morning and evening prayers and mass, every day.
“I was so happy and fulfilled,” he recalls, “discovering new gifts and ways of using them in ways I’d never thought about.” Yet he knew the church’s most desperate need was for parish priests, and that was where the Diocese of Nashville, which was paying for his education, would place him.
When his vocation director pressed for a commitment to continue on to divinity school and ordination, he had to say no. He wrote the bishop to request disaffiliation, paid his last year of tuition himself, and went looking for another way to minister.
A Franciscan brotherhood in Chicago was a better fit for his liberal brand of Catholicism, with its focus on social justice, the environment, acceptance of others, and service. One day he and another brother visited Unity Temple in Oak Park, an architectural gem of geometry and light designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. “I’d never heard of Unitarian Universalism,” Shelton says. “I saw a poster with the Principles there, and my first thought was, Who wouldn’t believe that? That’s sort of baseline. Later when I thought about it, I realized, I don’t know how many Catholics would get past the first one—the inherent worth and dignity of every person—depending on how broadly you define that.”
Shelton found he had a harder time putting on his robe each morning, feeling he always had to explain, “Oh, I’m not that kind of Catholic,” he says. “There are people who are designed for the fight, who spend their whole lives fighting to change what is wrong with church. But I’m about creating a community that celebrates what we are right now.”
After three years, he left the brothers, moved back to Nashville, and played music for mass at Vanderbilt. He confided his theological struggles to a Jesuit priest friend and got back a shocking answer, “Maybe you’re not Catholic anymore.”
Shelton realized, “All I was doing was a gig. I think I needed permission to leave.”
For a while he didn’t attend church. He started dating a woman who had left behind her Southern Baptist upbringing and suggested they visit the UU church a friend attended. They loved the service and how the minister, the first woman he’d ever heard in the pulpit, greeted them at the door. It felt like all the issues he’d been struggling with—attitudes toward authority, women, and homosexuality—had been settled.
“It was like, We’ve fixed that, and we’re moving on,” he remembers. “Mary got back in the car and just started sobbing—I didn’t know church could be like this—realizing how much she had given up by giving up the whole idea of religion. That’s become a theme for me, how Unitarian Universalism saves people, making it possible to engage what they need to have a good full life. When religion is presented irrationally or abusively, people end up walking away and saying, Well, that was religion.”
Within a few weeks, he told the Rev. Mary Katherine Morn he wanted to join. Her reply: “Do you want a job?”
Ten years later Shelton says, “I still consider myself a follower of the teachings of Jesus. It’s what I know best, and I haven’t even come close to living up to that. But I have a difficult time calling myself Christian, especially with all the baggage that comes with that in this part of the country.” His preferred theological label is UU direct experientialist, after the First Source. “To me that first one is all about the arts. It’s a way of saying I’m a musician.”
Performing this cantata is an ambitious challenge for a church choir, even a big choir in a town as musically well endowed as Nashville. It requires, as Shelton says, “knock-it-out-of-the-park” soloists in bossa nova, gospel, Broadway, dynamic storytelling, and surely the toughest to find in UU circles, hip hop. And it requires an orchestra, especially rock-solid percussionists.
The first and last movements are the hardest. “In the Beginning” is a true musician’s piece—fast, loud, exciting. Precision intonation and rhythm are critical. “The recording of the premiere demonstrates just how tenuous things were,” Shelton writes in his performance notes. “Somehow we managed to avoid several all-but-certain train wrecks, but were just lucky.” Gibbons calls this movement Shelton’s greatest accomplishment. “You really have to listen to it a number of times to hear the density of the whole thing,” she says.
The success of “The Promise,” the last movement, depends on a rapper who has the energy and talent to spit out the lickety-split multisyllabic street rhyme and who also really feels the heady concepts embodied in the Six Sources.
“I wouldn’t expect anyone to emulate exactly what I did,” Whitaker says. “That becomes inauthentic. Every church will have its young artists, poets, rappers, singers. Make it a multigenerational thing.” Now a high school art and film teacher in Brooklyn, he imagines senior youth groups studying a unit on the Sources, and then writing their own spoken-word poetry.
One movement in the cantata stands out, already a favorite among those who have sung, played, and listened to it: “All Lifted Hearts,” the movement for the Third Source, “wisdom from the world’s religions.”
It starts with a soloist singing a simple chant: “Many windows, one light; Many waters, one sea; All lifted hearts are free.” Inspired in part by the sung prayers at the ecumenical Taizé community in France, the melody is irresistible. Soon the choir joins in, and it becomes impossible not to sing along.
Two narrators alternate reading a teaching expressed in eight religious traditions: Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Taoist, Shinto, Lakota. The theme is what Christians would call the Golden Rule. Each teaching has subtle differences in syntax and emphasis. Hearing them side by side is striking in what it declares about the truth of Universalism. The Jewish rabbi Hillel sums it up, “This is the whole of the Law; all the rest is commentary.” The piece ends with a whispered chant of “Peace” in ten languages.
It’s the longest movement at eight-and-a-half minutes—the songwriters stopped with eight religions, only because they had to end the thing—and it’s the only movement that can be performed just as well by a small group and a piano. “It is the most immediately accessible to the ear, hearing it for the first time,” Gibbons says.
Originally Shelton and Gibbons felt the cantata should be performed only as a whole. They didn’t want, say, UU churches with a humanist or pagan or theist bent taking out just the movement that spoke to their leanings. After all, the point of writing it was we’re all of these things. But most of all, they wanted the work performed. So they decided to give permission for choirs to perform “All Lifted Hearts,” based in so many religions, as a stand-alone piece.
They also knew cost could be an obstacle. The price of printed choral and orchestral scores and hiring additional musicians could potentially run into thousands for a single performance. So Shelton went back to cold calling. The Church of the Larger Fellowship board agreed to sponsor the songwriters so they could apply for a $9,000 UU Funding Program grant—recipients must have a sponsoring group and outside funding—and offered its Lending Library as a vehicle for getting free scores to UU musicians.
About the same time, Shelton got a request from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford, Illinois, to write a piece for their retiring minister, the Rev. David R. Weissbard—a humanist, it turns out, who had been Gibbons’s internship supervisor and often invited her as a guest speaker. Instead, Shelton suggested, what if the church sponsored the humanist movement in this cantata? Over the next year, he lined up seven $1,000 sponsorships from a range of UU churches and organizations. “It says to me that an awful lot of people resonate with what we did artistically, and this is a statement that needed to be made.”
We are a diverse lot. The Sources reflect what we believe, our theological diversity, Shelton argues—and the Principles are our covenant to be in community with people who believe differently from how we do. “That’s the answer to the question of what holds us together,” he says. “What makes us whole is the promise: We will honor each of these paths and be grateful for what they are and how they ennoble who we are.”
A condensed version of this article appears in the Summer 2008 issue of UU World.
- Listen to 'Sources: A Unitarian Universalist Cantata.' World premiere performance, Nashville, Tenn., June 11, 2006. (JasonShelton.com)
- 'Sources: A Unitarian Universalist Cantata.' Download scores, performance notes, and a version of "All Lifted Hearts" arranged for SATB and piano from the composer's website. (JasonShelton.com)
- Jason Shelton.Composer's website. (JasonShelton.com)
- Beliefs Within Our Faith.Brief introductions to the theological diversity within Unitarian Universalism. (UUA.org)