The New Yorker Radio Hour interviewed Presbyterian minister and hymn writer Carolyn Gillette, who writes new text for older hymn tunes, often in response to contemporary events and topics ranging from adoption to climate change to voting to gay rights.
“I think there’s a place in the church for lament” as well as joy and praise, says Gillette, who began writing hymns in 1998 at a conference class about scripture and music. “She’s trying to bring the real world into church,” says interviewer Joshua Rothman.
She wrote a hymn for Orlando, “To a Place of Celebration,” setting the text to the hymn tune Ebenezer, performed by the Rutgers Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Here are the first two stanzas:
To a place of celebration filled with laughter, dancing, joy,
Came such violent devastation — one man’s efforts to destroy.
God, we grieve for loved ones taken; we lament, “What can we do?”
Now, we’re feeling lost and shaken; heal our nation! Make us new!
Weapons kill — and so does silence; hear our prayer as we confess:
We have given in to violence, we have bowed to hopelessness.
God, we’ve lost our sense of vision of a world where there will be
Plowshares made from violent weapons, justice in society.
Gillette has written about violent tragedy before, including a response to 9/11. Religion News Service published a story on her work in December 2015:
Before the massacre Wednesday (Dec. 2) in San Bernardino, Calif., before the Planned Parenthood clinic shootings in Colorado and before the recent attacks in Paris, Gillette reached for her writing pad after a rampage at an Oregon community college and jotted new verses on the ubiquity of gun violence.
That hymn, “335,609 (I Cried to God),” speaks of the number of people who died in the U.S. from gun violence between 2000 and 2010. It was sung last month at a “United to Stop Gun Violence” event at Washington National Cathedral. The fourth verse, sung to the tune of “Be Still, My Soul,” includes the phrase: “Give us the strength to make the killings cease.”
The hymn is available to churches and downloadable at The Presbyterian Outlook. Listen to the New Yorker Radio Hour interview below.