Sightings in Christian Music

by David Bjorlin

As a worship leader and a hymn writer, the past year has left me wondering how the church can respond to dangerous political rhetoric and action directly opposed to the central narrative of hospitality and welcome presented in Scripture. In light of a leader elected on the promise of border walls, Muslim bans, and opposition to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), it seems clear to me that a true Pietist movement rooted in the immigrant experience has a responsibility to speak and act on behalf of the stranger and foreigner in our midst. Further, I am convinced that part of the way we envision how to engage well in political discourse and social action is formed by the words we sing and pray in worship.

Luckily for me, I was asked by The Hymn Society of the United States and Canada to be a part of a working group that was tasked with forming a collection of songs around the theme of welcome to the refugee and immigrant. With over 200 entries, the working group narrowed the collection down to forty-six songs that became the online collection, Singing Welcome: Hymns and Songs of Hospitality to Refugees and Immigrant. Not only does this include songs written around the themes of welcoming the refugee and immigrant, it also includes songs from refugee and immigrant communities that allow us to join in their song. Through the generosity of songwriters and publishing companies (particularly Hope Publishing and GIA), the collection is free to use for two months, after which regular copyright reporting would apply.

As part of this call for new songs and texts, I decided to try my own hand at writing a hymn text of welcome. My own inspiration came from two distinct sources. First, I had been using both John Bell’s “Jesus Christ is Waiting” and Adam M.L. Tice’s “Draw a Wider Circle” regularly in worship services since the election. Both texts encompass themes of protest and social action, and both are set to the French folk tune NOÉL NOUVELET (most famously paired with “Now the Green Blade Rises”). I found that the folk tune proved a good vehicle for a social message. Second, and a bit more embarrassing to admit, was the influence of a social media meme—possibly one of the lowest levels of public discourse. In the midst of the debate around border walls, many of my friends began sharing a photo of a group of people sharing a meal at a long table with a message superimposed over the image: “When you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a higher fence.”

One day while running, the tune of NOÉL NOUVELET combined with the social media meme to form a first line: “Build a longer table, not a higher wall.” When I got home, I imagined a text that paralleled the structures we build in fear of the other—walls, jails, fences—with the structures Christians are called to build in welcome to the other—tables, refuges, doorways. The following text was the result, and I was thrilled to have it included in Singing Welcome.

Build a longer table, not a higher wall,
feeding those who hunger, making room for all.
Feasting together, stranger turns to friend,
Christ breaks walls to pieces; false divisions end.

Build a safer refuge, not a larger jail;
where the weak find shelter, mercy will not fail.
For any place where justice is denied,
Christ will break the jail walls, freeing all inside.

Build a broader doorway, not a longer fence.
Love protects all people, sparing no expense.
When we embrace compassion more than fear,
Christ tears down our fences: all are welcome here.

When we lived as exiles, refugees abroad,
Christ became our doorway to the reign of God.
So must our tables welcome those who roam.
None can be excluded; all must find a home.

Copyright © 2017, GIA Publications, Inc.