Originally published in Religion Unplugged on April 7, 2021.
By Kimberly Watson; Photograph: Solomon Hoffman’s YouTube Channel
Rae Whitney has written more than 500 hymns in her 94 years, songs full of praise and declarations of faith that make them perennial favorites in Episcopal, Presbyterian and Baptist hymnals.
But once in a while, something happens that demands a specific response and she creates a hymn she knows will have a short shelf-life.
“I don’t know if these hymns will last,” Whitney said from her home in Western Nebraska. “These are hymns of the moment.”
Last year, she wrote “A Tiny Thing We Cannot See” for a very specific moment — the COVID-19 pandemic:
“A tiny thing we cannot see
or taste or feel or hear,
has shut down nearly half our world
and brought distress and fear.
We’ve read about the plagues of old:
now a virus gone astray
has caused much sickness, death and grief,
with new reports each day.”
The pandemic has prompted composers to create new sacred music of all kinds — hymns, liturgical music, prayers, praise music and more. These are not limited to one religion, but have cropped up in Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic and Protestant circles.
And they span the globe, leaping cultural and language barriers via social media and the internet:
• In Japan, a Buddhist priest named Chiba Kenjō from the Rinzai Zen tradition collaborated with electronic musicians to create a piece of sacred music titled “Repel” intended to ritually ward off the coronavirus.
• In India, a group of Hindu women gathered to sing an “aarti,” a form of sung worship, with a chorus of “coronavirus go away.”
• In England and Scotland, the Methodist Church is linking home worshippers to newly-written COVID hymns, including “When We Face an Unknown Future” by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette.
These “COVID hymns” are an attempt to cope with uncertain times and express that which may be too painful or difficult to express in plain words.
A hymn “can release tension and it can express, ‘Hey, God, I am hurting here,’” said Brian Hehn, director of The Hymn Society’s Center for Congregational Song in Washington, D.C., which promotes hymn singing. “It can provide us with a sense of relief and help us when we’ve maybe put up some barriers to try to make it through a difficult time like the pandemic.”
COVID hymns have some common characteristics. Most contain a lament — a list of things that cause pain and suffering — and ask God to intervene. Other common themes include grief, longing and loss and the agony of waiting for better times.
“Just naming those things is very biblical,” Hehn said. “Those are themes that continue to be written about during Covid.”
In pre-pandemic times, this music would have been sung, played or listened to in community at a worship or prayer service. But because many worship services have been virtual and singing can spread Covid through airborne particles, COVID hymns are typically sung by individuals alone at home, joined by others via Zoom or Skype.
No one knows exactly how many COVID sacred music compositions there are, but The Hymn Society has compiled an entire webpage of them.
“I have definitely seen an uptick in that people want to address the specific situation,” Hehn said. “There are more lament songs, more songs that name the hurt and longing that people have to be together, more songs that name the tragedy that is COVID.”
This is not the first time sacred music has responded to crisis. C. Michael Hawn, a professor emeritus of church music at the Perkins School of Theology compiled a list of ten Christian hymns written during times of plague, war and natural disasters. Some of them, like “Now Thank We All Our God,” written amid the disease and famine of the Thirty Years War, are stalwarts of Protestant worship today.
Amanda Udis-Kessler usually writes hymns of inclusion for progressive and queer congregations, but she has also written hymns in response to gun violence, police shootings and the 9/11 attacks. Lately she has turned to composing COVID hymns.
“Most current events have larger truths behind them,” Udis-Kessler said from her home in Colorado Springs. “There are social patterns in all of these things.”
An example is her hymn “Jesus the Essential Worker,” with both English and Spanish lyrics. “Essential worker” is a term coined by COVID, but the hymn focuses on the universal theme of inequality as it imagines Jesus as a custodial worker, a maid and a delivery man:
You can see it in the numbers: some lives matter more than others.
Every day it makes me wonder who’s essential, what that means.
We could choose to feed the hungry, heal the sick and love our neighbors.
We could be essential workers, building up the world we dream.
Her “Church Is More Than Just a Building” is a response to the virtual worship services the pandemic requires. Udis-Kessler knows these compositions might not survive the pandemic, but they will have served their purpose.
“I’m trying to push boundaries a bit, but also remind us of what’s really important,” she said.
Solomon Hoffman’s foray into COVID sacred music came out of his experience as a hospital chaplain in New York City during the height of the virus’s outbreak.
“There was a lot of loss and challenge going on in our city and we just were hearing sirens all the time,” he said. “There was really just a sense of helplessness and fear.”
He picked up a composition he shelved just before the pandemic, a rendition of the third and fourth verses of Psalm 147 in both Hebrew and English. He then asked dozens of his musician friends from different faiths and no faith in several countries to help him produce it.
The result is “Harofei,” Hebrew for “the one who heals,” a collage of singing voices, dancing bodies and lilting instruments, all interpreting the phrase “May the light of the stars heal the wounds in our hearts” in multi-layered harmony. Ritual Well, a Jewish Reconstructionist organization, included “Harofei” in its service marking the one-year anniversary of living with COVID-19.
Hoffman — who will leave his chaplaincy and return to rabbinical school in the fall — said singing with other people is integral to both commemorating the losses of COVID-19 and moving forward from grief.
“I think there’s a real power in bringing together people in song,” he said. “It is a universal way that people can connect.”
Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and more. She is the recipient of the Religion News Association’s 2018 award for best religion reporting at large news outlets.