Come, Ye Disconsolate
Maybe because I was born 1954, the same year as Brown v. Board of Education, I have always known that brokenness is not only individual, but also social and collective. I learned that religious community and theology often hold a people struggling with brokenness, suffering, and injustice. My earliest influences in being held this way are my family church and the movement for African-American civil rights.
At Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Washington DC, where I grew up, the hymn “Come, Ye Disconsolate” called worshipers to the altar for personal prayer:
Come, ye disconsolate, where’re ye languish
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel
Here bring your wounded heart, here tell your anguish
Earth hath no sorrow that heaven cannot heal
My earliest image of how faith holds a people in brokenness and suffering is Saint Paul members walking down the sunlit aisles in the former synagogue to bring their wounded hearts, anguish, sorrow, and loss to the wide wooden altar, as the choir sang “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” Those prayerful moments in the church demonstrated the equality of all in the eyes of the Creator: school teachers and nurses, government workers and college professors, beauticians and truck drivers, domestics and day laborers—all came to kneel humbly in private conversation with their God. When they rose to return to the pews, their eyes sometimes held tears, but always held hope, and their bodies were outlined by the glow from stained glass windows, still decorated with stars of David.
In the 1960s, social status in Washington was communicated not only by race and ethnicity but also through education, profession, material assets, and physical appearance. As early as age four, I saw that children with fair skin and silky hair were viewed as more attractive, intelligent, and well-behaved by black and white society. I recognized that the black proprietor of my nursery school had great respect for the children whose parents worked for the government and owned their houses and that she treated me indifferently because my mother worked at a laundry, my father worked for a trash company, and we rented the upstairs apartment in another family’s home.
I went to an all-black elementary school, where the white principal did not allow teachers to give A’s to students because she was convinced of the inferiority of black people. Aunts, uncles, and neighbors, when moved by television images of attack dogs and fire hoses turned on students and marchers, told personal stories about unfair treatment at work, in stores, by police, or while traveling through white neighborhoods.
The church, while not immune from race, color, and class discrimination, provided fortification for struggling against racial and economic injustice. Ministers in the 1960s and 1970s would never use a word like empowerment, but it was the subtext of sermons and the Bible stories they most frequently referenced. They spoke of evil as evident in oppression and inequality. The sermons about oppression came clothed in stories of persecuted prophets and other Biblical protagonists with whom the congregation could identify, those ancient stories often paired with accounts of contemporary civil rights struggles.
The church asserted that neither material assets nor profession nor social standing determined intrinsic worth. God conferred worth and dignity. No matter the struggles and injustice in the world, the faithful would find support in times of trouble. The righteous will not be forsaken. The meek shall inherit the earth. We shall overcome. Earth hath no sorrow that heaven cannot heal. These messages gave me a strong sense of my own possibilities despite the larger society’s messages.
But the most influential minister of my childhood and early youth was a Baptist minister from Georgia. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the brokenness and suffering caused by injustice in society. His words, echoing the messages I heard from the pulpit, named injustice and oppression as evils that had to be transformed—but King went further. He called the oppressor as well as the oppressed to a vision of beloved community, a society of love and justice that all people were responsible for creating.
As I witnessed King’s work at the intersection of his religious identity and social justice, I unconsciously absorbed the wisdom that living as a person of faith means practicing social justice. And I learned that one role of the church is to support its members in acting justly beyond its walls. However, a time came when the support that Saint Paul offered was inadequate to hold the identity struggles I experienced as a working-class, first-generation college student. Although the congregation continued to affirm me, the theology did not address the complexity that I witnessed in worlds beyond the church community. However, the college environment lacked the values that I cherished at Saint Paul, as well as its emphasis on integrity and character.
My search for something to anchor me led me to other theologies. At the Howard University School of Religion library I immersed myself in the philosophies of Howard Thurman, Zen Buddhists, existentialists, and Christian mystics, as well as traditions of the Far East, to help me cope with my personal anguish. Though the philosophies provided useful insights, they did not provide comfort. I found myself listening a lot to “Come, Ye Disconsolate,” as recorded by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack.
When I discovered Unitarian Universalism a decade later, as a young adult at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington DC, I found a faith with justice at its core. I did not leave Saint Paul because I rejected anything; I joined All Souls because Unitarian Universalism was theologically expansive, included more social identities, emphasized human agency, and brought together faith and justice.
For many years, All Souls was the religious home that fortified me through all the disappointing presidential elections, irrational wars, and halting progress of social justice movements. Unitarian Universalism challenged me to continue to expand my consciousness of the ways that injustice manifests in human relationships—not only with regard to race, gender, and class but also sexual orientation, disability, age, nationality, and religion.
Unitarian Universalism is my religious home. It is not a perfect faith community for a woman of color from a working-class family. Our congregations’ struggle to be fully racially and culturally inclusive is a continuing source of disappointment, and it is painful to admit that not all social identities find full welcome in our faith. Despite the tensions and contradictions between Unitarian Universalists’ principles and practices, in matters of faith and social justice I find in it a more expansive altar where I can bring my wounded heart and tell my anguish.
Excerpted from “Come, Ye Disconsolate” by Taquiena Boston, director of multicultural growth and witness for the Unitarian Universalist Association. Published in 2009 by Skinner House in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists, edited by John Gibb Millspaugh.
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