I. literally a lifetime ago
At some particular moment in my history, I found myself spending Saturdays in songwriting circles. Participating in those seminars was quite the departure from my extracurriculars in the church my family had attended for ten years. There, I participated in the liturgical dance, mime, and flag ministries. By the time I graduated high school, I was in charge of the flag ministry and the lovely little 7-12 year old girls who waved in worship on rotating Sundays. My mom and I were pretty integral in the liturgical dance ministry, and sometimes worked together to choreograph pieces to share in church. That was literally a life time ago.
I actually chose my high school – Southeast Raleigh Magnet – based on the fact that it boasted a reputable modern dance program. I was an unpassioned (aka lazy) flute player at Carnage Middle School, and when the time came to transition into high school, I felt sure that modern dance was a much better path for me than band camp in the humidity of a North Carolina summer. My mom insisted that all of us have a musically related pursuit to supplement our academics, and musical inclinations run in my family. I didn’t have to try very hard to get by as an average public school musician, but I also don’t remember two scales worth of music theory soooo there’s that. ha.
I was accepted into Southeast Raleigh and the staleness and hollow frustration that marked a solid chunk of my adolescence was partially mediated by lyrical dance (and partially mediated by after school episodes of Reba, Laguna Beach, and The Fabulous Life). As much as I enjoyed mastering fundamental ballet and canonical modern technique, I was most moved by the opportunity to spill myself into the fluidity of a song by choreographing the lyrics thereof. Creating choreography seemed – at the time – the most intimate and transcendent way to experience and appreciate a song; and despite the fact that I had a dysfunctional and dissociated relationship with my body, dance made me feel less unalive.
When I was seventeen, I fell in love with Jesus at a Greg Laurie Harvest Crusade my church youth group attended in Raleigh. The peace and assurance of salvation that had thus far eluded me filled every crevice of my spirit and I no longer felt like a sinking, detached soul held hostage in a heavy and cumbersome body. The hypercriticism with which I viewed my body didn’t go away overnight, but my fear of death did and with it, a great deal of my anxiety. The ‘Crusade’ took place in June of 2007, and I spent my senior year podcasting sermons from Aaron Stern, Judah Smith, and Brian Houston. I grew an actual appetite for God’s Word and, for the first time, felt nourished voluntarily reading scripture. I also went through a season of listening exclusively to Christian music and was entirely enamored with Brooke Fraser, Joel Houston, and Jad Gillies. Like a lot of folks, I had a complicated church experience, so having the influence of people who had vibrant and enjoyable lives in churches they looked forward to going to was extremely transformative for me at the time.
The first semester of my Freshmen year at UNC, I regularly attended Chapel Hill Bible Church. The church coordinated a shuttle that picked UNC students up on the Southside of Campus not far from the Hinton James dorm, and gave out fresh batches of ‘Welcome Bread’ at the conclusion of services. I got to know a crew of other students who attended the same service regularly – some of which I ended up remaining at least loosely acquainted with for the rest of my time at Carolina. Eventually, I began eagerly carpooling to The Summit Church alongside many of my Cornerstone peers. Cornerstone was the alias of UNC Chapel Hill’s Campus Crusade ministry; the name had been changed in an effort accommodate the fact that the term ‘crusade’ was (understandably) offensive to a significant portion of the student body.
My mom lived in Brier Creek at the time – about five minutes away from The Summit. During my Junior year, she would drive up to Chapel Hill and pick me up from my Ram’s Head on-campus apartment early on Saturday mornings. We’d stop by Panera for Iced Green Tea and Bear Claws before she dropped me off on TW Alexander. A few hours later, I would get a ride back to school from her or my dad. I think it was evident to me that she was making yet another sacrifice to spend her Saturdays traipsing me around, but I still had the stench of resentment at not being able to drive myself. I didn’t have my license at the time and it was a constant source of shame and anxiety for me.
Nonetheless, I felt particularly convinced that I needed to be a part of the songwriting seminars. They were led by Matt Papa, and largely attended by worship leaders from our church and other churches in the area. If I correctly recall, Matt would have us insert our names in a cup for group drawing to contribute primarily to either lyrics or melody. My piano skills were long lost, and my baby sister’s attempt to teach me guitar either failed or hadn’t happened yet, so I considered myself a lyricist every weekend.
I was majoring in Psychology with a minor in Jewish Studies and an insatiable desire to drop out altogether, marry my nonexistent boyfriend and have babies. I wanted nothing more than to write children’s stories unbothered from a modest home in Wake Forest, NC. So when Matt asked me if I’d ever considered pursuing songwriting as a vocation, it took a few seconds for the shock to wear off and for me to dismiss the notion all together. I think I responded with something that probably didn’t make sense to him then, and doesn’t make sense to me now. Something that likely revealed the fact that my narrowly explored life goals seemed – to me – mutually exclusive with telling stories through lyrics wrapped in melodies.
I might as well have responded with a scoff. Songwriting – good songwriting – isn’t safe as a hobby on the weekend, let alone a life’s pursuit. And safe was the only thing I wanted to be… despite the streak of wildness in me that agreed to lead worship for The Summit’s middle school youth group, song-unsung.
During one of the sessions, my group had been allowed to work in the main sanctuary portion of the warehouse facility to have access to the piano for the musician in our group. From the stage, we churned out stanzas and a bridge. As the session ended I was approached by an unassuming church employee who happened to be sweeping while my group brainstormed our song. Never having met me before, he asked if I’d be interested in helping him with the music the following Sunday night.
I said that it seemed fun, and pointed out that he had never heard me sing. He smiled and said, “I bet you sound alright.” So I signed myself up for leading with him at youth group. The following Sunday evening, I went to the bathroom six times before the opening prayer out of anxiety, discovered that I yawn incessantly when I am nervous about singing, and got hit on by a twelve year old who assumed I was his age. Over the next few weeks of the semester, I was introduced to the magic of the Aviom, and given the permission to sing softly. Eventually, the team grew some, and another female vocalist was added. I found it challenging to commit to a part, as opposed to just free styling my harmonies, and developed an aversion to vocal ambitions. I think it’s because I had a tendency to not be diligent… to assume that if I am already good, I am good enough, and if I’m not good, I’m not going to be.
At any rate, I think I ended up not leading after that semester had ended, but I don’t exactly remember why. I know I felt like it was time for me to not be leading anymore, and I know I cried in the Hardee’s drive thru from the passenger seat of my mom’s Mazda on the way back to Carolina one Sunday evening because nothing good ever lasts long enough. In hindsight, I think I may have felt lonely. Throughout college, I typically felt on the outskirts of whatever ministry team I was involved with, and could never really figure out why. In the passage of time, and with an education in micro-aggression from a friend of mine, I realized that being a magical black girl in spaces predominantly occupied by white males probably had something to do with it, but I think I also had glamorous ideas about what it meant to be a part of ministry teams at all, which is sure to set the stage for disappointment, discontent, and self-doubt.
Despite all that, it was humbling to be involved in leading worship for middle schoolers; to be valued for something that I hardly felt made for… I had long since concluded that I must not be a singer since I couldn’t hit the high notes with Lisa Kimmey Bragg of Out of Eden…
The memory of that short season feels dim and vaguely twinkle-lit like the warehouse on those Sunday evenings, but holy and orchestrated. It was through leading worship for the youth group that I met my dear friend and ‘big brother’ Aaron – aka ‘Aboz’ – , and ended up spending the subsequent summer as a church-planting intern in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
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