Jesus of the Streets, Remember Me

Originally published by GIA Quarterly, Fall 2007
– PDF version –

Our parish community prays the taize chant “Jesus, Remember Me” as an antidote to loneliness and fear in our neighborhood. In the past five years, two young men were murdered in separate incidents at the entrance of our church. The forces of violence and isolation killed Wallace and Daniel, and the two crimes may never be solved. ‘As a faith community on this corner of Sixth and Burnside in Portland, Oregon, the violence that surrounds us compels us to take our voices from the safety of the sanctuary into the chaos and uncertainty of our streets.

Two weeks after Daniel’s murder, I took the risk of asking Daniel’s family and our parish community to pray together on the street at 3:00 A.M., the exact time of his murder. I woke up myself to the reality of the neighborhood and the call for the parish to stand amidst the violence. I wrote a prayer service and composed a sung litany for the occasion, but it was the song “Jesus, Remember Me” that I relied on to move the mourners from our warm lobby into the cold and unforgiving street that night.

We gathered in our small lobby and were led outside under the banner of a processional cross. Slowly our voices merged into the simple chant of “Jesus, Remember Me,” and I could feel our souls clinging to the music and to the message. We did not want Daniel to be forgotten, and we did not want death to win out. The song flooded our hearts and began to wash away our fear on the bloodstained streets.

Our community of the Downtown Chapel of Saint Vincent de Paul Parish now responds to murder beyond our red doors. When a homicide occurs within our neighborhood, we carry our faith and our song deeper into our fearful community. After celebrating Sunday Eucharist, we process out of the chapel and into the streets singing “Jesus, Remember Me.” We stand firmly on the place of death and pray for peace. Our voices merge into support and encouragement so the families and neighborhood can move beyond hatred. Our singing bears witness to our own community that power comes from faith even though we live in the midst of mental illness and homelessness. For just a few minutes our collective praise of God erases the loneliness that makes a home in our addictions and poverty.

“Jesus, Remember Me,” from the French monastery of Taize, especially voices the ache of the human condition within the love and passion of God. Jacques Berthier’s melodic chant opens every community to the longing of the repentant thief from the Gospel of Luke (Luke 23:39–43). The combination of text and musical accessibility makes this song one of the most profound liturgical and ritual pieces of music available in any pastoral setting.

The healing balm of “Jesus, Remember Me” continues to guide my human and sacramental response to people in need. I bear this song in my heart well after the choir rehearsals are over, the altar candles are snuffed out, and the church doors locked. This mystical chant carries my priestly ministry into the darkness where fear, loneliness, and despair overwhelm people. Berthier’s music companions me when I am helpless in the center of desperate moments and worried that words will not satisfy in circumstances of chaos and violence.

I carried this mantra again one rainy night from the warmth of my bedroom to the deathbed of a newborn baby. Walking into the small hospital quarters, I was confronted with nurses, aides, and doctors huddled around the premature infant. Sounds of life-sustaining machines filled the silence of the room. The exhausted mother sat nearby, suffocating in her grief. She desperately wanted someone from the church to be present for the decision to turn off the respirators, and to end the life of ner firstborn boy. I quietly, fearfully, leaned against the doorway, waiting to speak with her.

The doctors decided to turn off the respirator and let the infant breathe on his own power. The hospital staff and the baby’s mother all looked to me for assurance and approval. I felt so inadequate, so naked, and so unable to speak any words of consolation. So, I sang, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” The nurses and their aides joined in praying with soft voices of support. The baby’s breathing lasted just a few minutes.

The mother carried her dead child to an oversized rocking chair in a darkened corner of the room. She asked me if I would sit with her for a while. I squeezed into the chair and put my arm over her shoulders as she held the body. We rocked and sang. We rocked away the cold night and sang the song we could hold on to, the only prayer that could comfort us. We rocked on the margins of this world and the Kingdom.

My pastoral experience teaches me that we are all afraid. Fear crushes us when the fragility of our existence takes over our daily lives. This is simply being human. However, a faithful and pastoral response to life cannot be based on denial, sugarcoating painful circumstances or avoiding the truth. Music brings us closer to the release of fear, to the understanding that Jesus’ passion-death-and-resurrection is also for our own lives as well. Ritual song does not take suffering away, but it bonds us in faith with those in sorrow and those who cling to the new life only Christ can bring.

Berthier’s music gets to the heart of faith. This simple chant, sung together in congregations, or anywhere two or three are gathered, demonstrates our earthly desire for God’s assistance and remembrance. The hypnotic melody helps us rest in the assurance of Christ’s passion to bring everyone into the love and forgiveness of the Kingdom. His music helps us to leave our self-sufficiency and cling to God.

Singing “Jesus, Remember Me” along the margins of the church and culture brings me to a deeper faith. Carrying this gift of song into people’s suffering helps me realize that worship is built upon people who need God through daily human turmoil and struggles, Opening people up in song when they are most closed down in sorrow invigorates my faith when I rerum to the worshiping assembly. This chant goes far to unite individual suffering to the prayer of the entire congregation.

Musicians and pastoral leaders can only witness to faith if we believe what we are singing. Singing along the margins of life means we also leave behind comfortable aspects of our ministry and images of ourselves. Singing among those who suffer the most means we leave behind the mandatory rehearsals, our performance egos, and professional liturgical correctness. Believing what we sing is a gift of faith.

We are called to bring this gift of faith into the lives of wounded veterans and the uncertainty of their families. We carry this faith with us as we listen to people crying out in despair over losing homes and security in floods and storms. We offer the song of faith to those suffering from debilitating depression and the shunning of those with mental illness. We sing in unity when people are torn apart by job loss, the end of a marriage, or the death of a parent. It is into all these situations we bring a song of presence, remembrance, and hope.

I sing in the midst of sorrow so I will nor forget people. Music keeps my memory alive and my life prayerful. I will never forget the widow’s grieving, the mentally ill parent, or the child with cancer. I still pray for the mother of a son dying of AIDS who taught me to overcome my fear of touching her son. My memory prays for the family walking to the gravesite on a cold windy day to bury their grandfather. I cannot forget the ache of those who cry out for help and assurance.

I also learn from all these fragile circumstances that people cannot be manipulated or controlled. Reaching out beyond our safe sanctuaries does not guarantee that tragic situations will change or that people will be comforted. I cannot bring with me pat answers, stale rubric, or a fixed pattern of responding to people’s needs. I still learn about my temptation to judge people and my desire to control conversations when I am afraid and lonely.

Not everyone is ready to move out of fear. When life is raw and hurting, some people cannot immediately receive the invitation for God’s remembrance and love. Fear is an incredible beast to tame even with music and prayer. I learned this again one night when I responded to a phone call requesting a priest for a twelve-year-old boy dying in an emergency room.

I proceeded slowly into the corner of the hospital room where the boy was hooked up to multiple monitors. The clicks, sighs, and rings of the life-giving equipment overwhelmed me. I was prepared with the sacramental oils in hand, but I was not ready for the anguish of the boy’s mom. The loudest sound in the room was her voice as she leaned over her son and screamed into his face. “Don’t you die!” she yelled. “If you die I will be so angry!” she shouted above all the screeching monitors. As she yelled I noticed the graphs and lights on all of the machines attached to the boy’s body popping up and down. The more she screamed at him, the louder the buzzers and alarms sounded around the boy’s bed.

I watched the boy’s body become rigid and resistant. The sound of her yelling made me nervous and anxious about how to respond to both of them. She finally invited me close to her son’s bed. I approached him from the opposite side where the mother sat on the bed. I could hardly speak. His fear filled me with tears. I slowly began to sing, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” When the boy heard my voice, he started to relax. His face lost its frown and his shoulders let loose. All the graphs and lights on the monitors began to even out.

The mother’s face became red and tight. Her mothering instincts became another kind of monitor. She stared at the machines and became unraveled. She verbally threw me out of the room and told me never to come back. I still pray for her years later because recovering from a child’s death is in God’s hands alone.

“Jesus Remember Me” continues to echo throughout my sacramental ministry, in my memory of those who felt forgotten by illness, aging, or fear. I have sung this refrain in every possible ministry setting. Many times it connects people’s longing to God’s love, and sometimes people are not yet ready to receive that invitation. No matter how people respond I am always changed by people’s courage to face life as it is. I am always brought to profound prayer even when pain divides people from their loved ones. Even when people cannot relate to this song at the time, I always come back to our parish assembly confident that the words of the man who hung next to Jesus still spoke of hope and consolation.

Leaving the safe confines of our communities of worship and taking prayer and music into daily life is never easy. Ourcommon worship depends, however, on people feeling connected to faith and the support of the church in times of profound fear and uncertainty. This is where real music ministry opens us all to reliance on God and the love of people who remember others in good times and in bad. The sung Scripture verse from Taize, “Jesus Remember Me,” helps us all pray through our sorrow and leads us to rely on and praise God. No matter how far into the inconsolable suffering of people this chant may take us, Jesus will no doubt remember us all.

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