New song lets us pray for hope, action after Charleston church tragedy

Recently, we’re hearing a lot about the spiritual power of music! Our Cover Story last week was about a Franciscan friar and a Jewish cantor who created a lovely new musical setting for Pope Francis’s prayer on behalf of creation. And, this summer, global peacemaker Daniel Buttry is posting inspiring music videos in his Interfaith Peacemakers website. We thank the readers who contacted us, this week, asking us to report on the new hymn written by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette in the wake of the Charleston church shootings. Here is our report on what we found …

By DAVID CRUMM, ReadTheSpirit Editor

A SONG can be a powerful form of prayer—as hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillette is showing us once again in the wake of the tragic shootings in Charleston. Already, her new hymn, They Met to Read the Bible, is echoing coast-to-coast set to at least two traditional melodies.

Why should such a tragedy inspire a hymn? First, let’s be clear that it’s not about fame or fortune. Carolyn Gillette already is well known for her musical work and she is freely giving her words to anyone who wants to sing and spread this song. (We’ve got the entire text and a music-video below.)

ReadTheSpirit asked Carolyn to answer the “why” question and on Sunday afternoon she told us:

“Hymns are prayers to God that are sung usually by a congregation. When something so tragic happens, we need to offer that up to God. We need to pray about it. When we set the words of prayers to music, then whole groups of people can pray together. After such a tragedy, we need to pray for comfort—for the people who are involved, for all those who are suffering because of this tragedy and for our nation. People all across our nation—and all around the world—now have been touched by this racism and violence. We are grieving. This is a time to pray.

“Prayer challenges us to hear from God and to change our lives. When we sing a prayer together, it’s a way of committing ourselves to ending the violence and the racism we are experiencing and are grieving all around the world.”

Carolyn Gillette is well known for her contemporary hymns. (Visit her website for information about many  more themes she has explored.) So, shortly after the Charleston shootings, colleagues nationwide began contacting her for new words to sing in prayer.

“First,” she recalls, “they asked if I would quickly modify one of the other hymn-prayers I have written so they could use that right away. But, after reading their emails and thinking about what we’ve all experienced, I decided about 10 p.m. that night to start writing a new hymn. I finished this hymn around 3:30 in the morning. We had to get it out quickly.

“The next morning, my husband Bruce began sending it out to pastors, churches and other friends who have used my hymns before.”


Carolyn and Bruce are familiar with the wide diversity of American hymns. Together, they serve Limestone Presbyterian Church in Delaware. But, as her musical website points out, she also is proud of her family’s deep roots in the United Methodist Church. In ministry, they connect with ecumenical and interfaith circles.

For Carolyn’s new words, they chose a traditional melody to the hymn Beneath the Cross of Jesus used in African-American and many mainline Protestant denominations. Often sung slowly in an expression of lament, the tune seemed perfect to the Gillettes as they spread Carolyn’s words through online networks.

Soon, of course, her words traveled far beyond Protestant congregations.

At Seattle’s St. Patrick Catholic Church, just south of the University of Washington, Music Director Laura Ash was grieving with the Charleston congregation even though she lives thousands of miles from that church. She printed out Gillette’s new hymn after hearing about it through an ecumenical musical network. That Sunday, she had carried the words into church with her. As she sat in private prayer during Mass—she felt a spirit moving her to perform the new song.

The liturgy already was unfolding, but she momentarily consulted with the pastor. As the head of the parish’s music program, the priest gave her leeway during communion to sing the song as a special offering.

“Lots of our members are of Irish descent and I love traditional Irish melodies,” Laura said this past weekend about that moment in the Mass. The melody she chose is called Kingsfold; the United Methodist song book, for example, has three different hymns set to that tune.

“Our people know the melody; I know it, so that’s what I used,” Laura said. “As I began singing, I felt moved to use the Sean-nós style. Even if they don’t know that term, your readers would know that old Irish style if they heard it—slow and with vocal flourishes on some words to convey the lament.”

Why did such an unexpected song come forth in that Mass so far from Charleston?

“Personally,” Laura said, “I am just so weary of gun violence. That’s on one level, but the deeper problem we have in our country, and we’re not really facing it, is the racism that still is all around us. In our country, we seem to be resting on our laurels as if: We’re done. Racism isn’t a problem anymore. And it has just raised its head in such a horrible way.

“For me, singing has always been the way to pray. Singing lets us go deeper. Singing opens up our hearts. As I sang, I was expressing my grief for the loss of these people, my concern for their families, my concern for our nation.

“And as I sang, I could see so many faces marked with tears—so many faces telling me that they were praying with me in that song. We’re all so tired and hurt by what has happened and we need to come together to find healing and to find new strength to confront this sickness. We need healing and hope. All of that was in the song.”

The experience was so spontaneous that no record was made of her Sean-nós rendition during Mass. But parishioners urged her to create a video of this version so others could keep sharing the song with that melody. A few days later, Laura agreed to sing it again, but this time in a more basic version of the melody. Most church musicians would not attempt the Sean-nós version, she reasoned; offering the video in this more straight-forward rendering might encourage other singers to keep the song going.

“I appreciate so much what Carolyn Gillette did with this hymn,” Laura said. “I’m glad we can play a small part in keeping the song going out to more communities.”


Yes, that’s right. You’re free to use this hymn. Many of our readers pay close attention to the rights of writers, which we appreciate. But, on Sunday when she called our offices, Carolyn actually insisted that—along with her personal comments—we make sure to share the entire text. You’re free to reproduce and keep singing this hymn.

They Met to Read the Bible

Intended to be used with the melody “St. Christopher” aka “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” But now also used with “Kingsford,” a melody found in many popular hymnals.

They met to read the Bible,
they gathered for a prayer,
They worshiped God and shared with friends
and welcomed strangers there.
They went to church to speak of love,
To celebrate God’s grace.
O Lord, we tremble when we hear
What happened in that place.

O God of love and justice,
we thank you for the nine.
They served in their communities
and made the world more kind.
They preached and sang and coached and taught,
And cared for children, too.
They blessed your church and blessed your world
With gifts they used for you.

We grieve a wounded culture
Where fear and terror thrive,
Where some hate others for their race
And guns are glorified.
We grieve for sons and daughters lost,
For grandmas who are gone.
O God, we cry with broken hearts:
This can’t continue on!

God, may we keep on sowing
The seeds of justice here,
Till guns are silent, people sing,
And hope replaces fear.
May seeds of understanding grow
And flourish all our days.
May justice, love and mercy be
The banner that we raise.

Tune: Frederick Charles Maker, 1881 (“Beneath the Cross of Jesus”)
Text: Copyright © 2015 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. All rights reserved.
New Hymns:


Readers just like you shape our coverage at ReadTheSpirit online magazine. Our two most recent cover stories are directly inspired by reader emails. You can reach us anytime at [email protected]

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  1. Michael Pierson says

    I am sickened by what happened at the Ebenezer AME Church, but I am also heartened by the Christian forgiveness shown by the victims’ families towards the accused young man. They have reminded us of the way revealed to us by the Christ.

    It is all very well for us Americans to be angry, but we all bear a responsibility. Why are some of us so angry at people whose ancestors were treated so brutally by our ancestors? I was born in the UK, and my grandfather managed a cotton mill in Manchester, a city that, along with Liverpool and Bristol, grew rich from the infamous triangular trade of which the slave trade was a part. All of us were a part of this.

    Our society (Western, not just America) has a sickness which we must deal with, or we will surely perish in the end.

    Let us pray that we find the will to cleanse ourselves.

  2. Joe Hadley says

    Simply beautiful. What a wonderful gift for those who believe a better way is available for those who seek love, peace and forgiveness. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Diana Roberts says

    Beautiful. I plan to share it with our musical people at Prince of Peace, United Church of Christ.