You can’t be in a hurry listening to a Mahalia Jackson song. Her voice captures your attention like a moth to a flame. She extends each lyric and note, drawing you irresistibly into the heart of the song. You have to wait for her. You want to wait. You can’t not wait.
Her voice is like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. A refuge from the busy and hectic world, a place where haste is no longer a virtue and we’re reminded of the value of slow, deliberate contemplation and search for deeper meaning in what’s transpiring around us.
One of her songs, in particular, came to mind as I recently read an article about a young man named Logan Boulet. Logan was born in Lethbridge Alberta in 1997, the second child of two teachers who decided to name him for the highest mountain in Canada. He was an active child with many, constantly evolving interests. He loved hockey and more than made up for average size and natural talent with dedication, intensity and commitment to his team. His work ethic bordered on the obsessive. He eventually came to play for the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Logan was one of 16 people killed April 6, 2018 when their team bus was struck by a loaded tractor trailer that failed to stop at a highway intersection near Armley, Saskatchewan. His father, who was driving 15 minutes behind the bus, was one of the first on the scene.
Four weeks earlier, Logan had signed his organ donor card. He did so in honour of a former trainer who had died at 58 of a cerebral hemorrhage and been an organ donor. Logan’s heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas and corneas have all been successfully transplanted.
When asked a few weeks before by his father why he decided to sign the card, Logan replied:
“If I can help save six people, I’m gonna to do it”
When I read the article, his words stuck with me. In fact, I couldn’t shake it. I’d heard those words before. Turned out it was a Mahalia Jackson song entitled “If I can Help Somebody”.
Mahalia Jackson and Logan Boulet. Hard to imagine any two human beings whose life experiences were more different. Mahalia Jackson, two generations removed from former slaves, was born in New Orleans in 1911 and lived her childhood in a three room dwelling with 12 other people, including her mother, aunts, siblings and cousins, and the family dog. She was afflicted with congenital genu varum (bowed legs) which would have caused pain and physical limitations but didn’t stop her from dancing for the white ladies for whom her mother and aunt cleaned house. Her childhood was difficult, particularly after her mother died when she was five. There was no schooling, but there was church and, with it, singing. And how she loved to sing. She was courted by choirs and choirmasters particularly after she moved to Chicago at age 20. She went on to become one of the most celebrated gospel singers of all time, the first to sing at Carnegie Hall and at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. In 1963, she sang before 250,000 people assembled to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Five years later, she would sing at his funeral. She was an important force in the civil rights movement, but also the subject of racial prejudice and herself the target of assassination attempts. Despite all this, she remained hopeful and never embittered. When asked about her choice of gospel music over more popular forms, she said, “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free. It gives me hope”. She is also quoted as saying that she hoped her music could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country”.
The particular song that came to mind when I read about Logan goes as follows:
If I can help somebody, as I pass
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song
If I can show somebody, that he’s travelling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain
Mahalia Jackson and Logan Boulet. Two very different people. Different races, genders, generations, talents, interests, culture, environment. Poster children for our concept of “diversity”. It’s hard to imagine they would ever have had occasion to encounter each other, even if they weren’t so separated by space and time. And yet, they were linked by a common value and simple, human interest in doing what they could to help people around them. Linked in their values. Linked in their humanity. And so, perhaps not so diverse after all.
Here’s a link to that song. Give it a listen, but don’t be in a hurry.