Dr. Luke Powery will present “Lessons from the Unknown Black Bards” for Union College's Martin Luther King Jr. Day chapel service on January 17.
At a time when Christian preaching and music often focus on celebration and spiritual highs, Dr. Luke Powery believes that some of the most important lessons about God and the human condition can be learned from a genre of music filled with pain—the spiritual.
On Tuesday, January 17, at a special Union College chapel celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Powery will present “Lessons from the Unknown Black Bards,” a musical exploration of the history of black Americans as seen in the lyric and melody of spirituals.
“Spirituals were more than songs,” says Powery, the Perry and Georgia Engle Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary. “They were a musical weapon used to fight against shackles and free people psychologically from their circumstances.”
He believes that by studying the history of black Americans through lens of spirituals, we can better understand ourselves. “These are not just black songs, but human songs which speak to the human condition,” he said. “Black history is human history—it’s a history of God’s people in the world. It’s our story.”
Powery’s work as a teacher, preacher, writer and musician has centered around better understanding the intersection between worship practices and the work of the Holy Spirit amidst human suffering. “I’m the youngest of five children, and my mother lived with severe back pain most of my life,” he explained of his early understanding that embracing the bad times as well as the good is critical to the Christian experience. “I grew up in a context where pain was a constant part of life even after much prayer for healing.”
As he studied preaching and worship practices, especially in African-American traditions, Powery noticed a significant focus on celebration, but not on lament—the recounting of sorrow and pain. “The spirituals take suffering seriously, but they also take God seriously,” he said. “They are at the intersection of human suffering and the power of God.”
His work has led to two books, Spirit Speech: Lament and Celebration in Preaching and the upcoming Dem Bones: Preaching, Death and Hope, an exploration of spirituals as a resource for preaching.
Powery first earned a bachelor of arts in music from Stanford University. “I went to Stanford planning to study computer science and work in Silicon Valley,” the Miami native chuckled. “My father is a minister and I grew up in church. People told me I should go into the ministry, but I ran away from all that.”
Eventually, Powery chose to study music. “I felt like it was a form of surrendering to God. That ultimately led to my going to seminary.” He earned a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and a doctor of theology degree from Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto and has served in an ecumenical capacity at churches in Switzerland, Canada and the United States. He also currently serves as a member of the executive lectionary team for The African American Lectionary, an online project funded by the Lilly Endowment.
Union College’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration will take place at 10:30 a.m. in the sanctuary of the College View Seventh-day Adventist on the campus of Union College located at the corner of 48th and Prescott. The service is free and open to the public.