I did it again. Went to the Sea Chantey sing-a-long aboard the Balclutha ship on the Hyde St. Pier. People of all ages, sizes and shapes huddled together in a simple low-ceiling room while the song leader enters, sits down, sings a line and the room erupts in a lusty full-bodied response. Those who don’t know it quickly catch on and off we go! Two hours, with breaks for hot cocoa and cider, of song after song begun by whoever has the spirit. (I finally screwed up the courage to do one!). No big egos or efforts to impress, just the pleasure of people singing together with a power that I’ve only found in the African diaspora with it’s call and response traditions. Indeed, I sometimes felt as if I was in a Baptist church in the American South or a candomble ceremony in Brazil, no tambourines or drums, but an earthy beat in every ditty matched by glorious bass tones and whole body singing, witty lyrics, little stories and the longing of sailors to be “homeward bound.” We simply sat and sang the songs the sailors traditionally worked to, but you could feel the heave of the anchor and the pulling up of sail, the chapped and blistered hands, the sweat of your neighbor joined with you on the rope, it all came through.
No performance this, no ticket price, a room of strangers (though obviously regulars) instantly connected, a palpable energy in the shared tones that shook every atom of the body. It was everything that church should be, minus the dogma and theology. Indeed, I’ve always wondered why we need the word God and why all the fuss about a book with blatantly contradictory and often downright weird stories? God is not something to believe in or wonder about or accept on faith or be converted to by somebody else’s story. God is to be experienced in the marrow of the bones, the chambers of the heart, the electrical and chemical explosions in the brain, the rise and fall and bellows of the breath.
Prayer is not asking for something with mere words. It’s in the very act of chanting, poetically praising, singing from the bottom of your toes that God comes out from the hiding place. We’re not primed to find the Holy Spirit in lusty songs praising alcohol and the lovely maidens of Plymouth Town, but there it was.
Stepped out from the warmth of singing bodies to the winter night of a sparkling San Francisco, the lights of Ghiradelli Square, the waters lapping at the shore, the songs echoing in my ear and to quote my friend Chris Cunningham, “it doesn’t get any better than this.”