A Powerful Sound for Social Justice: Music From U2 Gives Contemporary Edge to Episcopal Service

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By Lisa Crutchfield, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

U2's "Gloria" poured from the speakers. The pews were packed.

And the newly consecrated bishop coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia was pumped.

"This is the way church ought to feel every time it starts," said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston.

"You couldn't have kept me away from this."

"Unforgettable Fire: A Eucharist for Social Justice" was held Thursday evening at the Church of the Holy Comforter (Episcopal), on Monument Avenue in Richmond. The service was held in conjunction with St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

The U2charist blended traditional liturgy with music not usually associated with church.

The customary elements -- Gospel reading, sermon, prayer and Communion -- were there.

But the Rev. Abbott Bailey wore flip-flops and a ONE T-shirt.

In place of hymns and organ music, U2 songs played loud but not begging for earplugs. The message was to wage war against poverty, disease, injustice and preventable suffering, all part of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals.

A large screen behind the altar displayed lyrics and corresponding visuals, a la MTV. Images ranged from celebrities and politicians to photos from church mission trips to Africa.

Several hundred worshippers snapped fingers, clapped hands and tapped feet along with the songs.

"This is really, really fun," said 12-year-old Celeste Glave. "We can relate to this music."

U2 singer Bono has used his fame to create awareness of his political activism, especially in the struggle to end global poverty. He co-founded the advocacy organization DATA (debt, AIDS, trade, Africa) and is a creator of the ONE campaign to increase U.S. spending on programs to aid Third World countries.

Some of U2's songs are overtly religious; the lyrics to "40," for example, are adapted from Psalm 40:1-3. Others, such as "Pride (In the Name of Love)" and "One" are metaphors for faith and justice.

"Bono is a disciple," said Johnston, who was attending his first U2charist.

U2's music often is used in worship, but in the past two years U2charist has become a familiar service, mainly in Episcopal churches.

The Rev. Paige Blair, rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in York Harbor, Maine, is credited with fueling the movement. She is a clearinghouse for information for interested churches.

"We have worked to popularize the U2charist and have consulted with hundreds of churches around the world," said Blair in an e-mail.

According to her calculations, in the past two years U2charist services have raised about $100,000 for projects ranging from food pantries to the Heifer Project. The majority of U2charists have been held in Episcopal churches, but other faiths are represented in her tallies.

The rights to use the songs are waived if offerings are donated to Millennium Development Goal projects. Thursday's offering was earmarked for Episcopal Relief and Development.

The Episcopal Church has endorsed the millennium goals and its General Convention has called on congregations to set aside .7 percent of budgets to support such programs.

The messages of the U2charist, said Bailey, associate rector of St. Stephen's on Grove Avenue in Richmond, are universal among Christians.

"One thing that can't be disputed in the Gospels is that Jesus was always reaching out to those in need.

"I am confident that if we let ourselves get swept up into the divine enactment of God's creative possibility expressed in this service, then we can answer yes to the divine 'what if' -- that we can answer yes to God's radical 'do it anyway,' she said in her sermon.

"If so, then we might just be able to stare down the world's most intractable problems and run headlong into the whirlwind of God's life-giving activity -- we might just truly help make poverty history," she said.

The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Midlothian held a U2charist in April. Adrien Jacob was one of the organizers.

"It was great to see the Holy Spirit move people," he said, noting that many of the 250 attendees were dancing in the aisles of the church.

"We wanted to use it for a teaching tool for the Rite 13 [youth] group. We started teaching about world issues, showing them the Millennium Development Goals. We talked about world poverty.

"I said, 'We're going to save the world, one thing at a time.'"

That U2charist raised more than $2,000 for building an elementary school in Kenya, Jacob said.

The Rev. Bruce Birdsey, interim rector at Holy Comforter, said before the service, "Serving this noble cause is a grand opportunity to reach people who may not have much use for the institutional church."

A full house at Thursday's U2charist proved his point.

Bishop Johnston said, "I think it shows the world is hungry. Not just for food, clothing and health, but for spirituality."

Contact Lisa Crutchfield at (804) 649-6362 or LCrutchfield@timesdispatch.com.

Copyright © 2007, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

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This page contains a single entry by Jonathan published on June 25, 2007 5:28 PM.

Bono at the 2007 G8 Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany (June 6, 2007) was the previous entry in this blog.

Why it is Never a Good Idea to go to Bono's House Drunk at 1:00 AM is the next entry in this blog.

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