Cultural Resources


(For those suffering emotional distress, grief, divorce, and physical ailments)


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Bernice Johnson Reagon, Lectionary Team Cultural Resource Commentator
William Wiggins, Jr., Lectionary Team Cultural Resource Commentator

I. Songs for This Liturgical Moment

There Is a Balm in Gilead

There is a Balm in Gilead
There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul

Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work’s in vain
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again

If you cannot preach like Peter
If you cannot pray like Paul
You can tell the love of Jesus
And say He died for all1

II. Biblical And Theological Notes

The first Biblical reference to Gilead as a place known for spices and healing herbs can be found in Genesis 37:25
As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded down with spices, balm, and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.

Jeremiah 8:22
Is there no balm in Gilead: is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

Jeremiah 22:6
For this is what the Lord says about the palace of the king of Judah: Though you are like Gilead to me, Like the summit of Lebanon, I will surely make you like a desert, Like towns not inhabited

  • ‘The ‘balm in Gilead’ is quoted in the Old Testament, but the lyrics of this spiritual refer to the New Testament (Jesus, Holy Spirit, Peter, and Paul). This difference is interesting to comment upon. In the Old Testament (Jeremiah 8.22, 22:6 and 13; and 46:2 and 11), the balm in Gilead cannot heal sinners. In the New Testament (‘the four Gospels say that Jesus healed many people what ever their conditions’) Jesus heals everyone who comes to Him.2

  • A Balm in Gilead Exegesis, Howard Thurman
    “The peculiar genius of the Negro slave is revealed here in much of its structural splendor. The setting is the Book of Jeremiah. The prophet has come to a ‘Dead Sea’ place in his life. Not only is he discouraged over the eternal events in the life of Israel, but he is also spiritually depressed and tortured. As a wounded animal he cried out, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ It is not a question directed to any particular person for an answer. It is not addressed to either God or to Israel, but rather it is a question raised by Jeremiah’s entire life. He is searching his own soul. He is stripped to the literal substance of himself, and is turned back on himself for an answer. Jeremiah is saying actually, ‘There must be a balm in Gilead.’ The relentless winnowing out of his own bitter experience has laid bare his soul to the end, so that he is brought face-to-face with the very ground and core of his faith.

    “The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma, and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: ‘There is a balm in Gilead!’ Here is a note of creative triumph.3

  • A Lesson from Balm in Gilead and Oh Lord Hold My Hand:
    You do not always have to leave the place that has wounded you. Sometimes you can stay in the place where you have experienced the most severe suffering. Coming through slavery, our people decided to stay in this place that through the crippling evil of slavery had exploited and abused us. We decided to stay in this land, but in our staying we have decided not to leave this land as it was. The African American legacy is one of calling this country to higher ground. And that means that if you stay in a place that has hurt you, you will have to deconstruct that place to extract the healing. This spiritual declares that, there is a balm in this Gilead and in this nation of our birth, the United States of America. We will with our struggle and challenge seek to transform her, into a society where healing can take place.

    In the same way this spiritual gives the option of staying, the same person has the knowledge of a strategy that says, “You had to leave this place and the sooner the better!”
Lord Hold My Hand
Oh Lord hold my hand, while I run this race
Oh Lord hold my hand, while I run this race
Oh Lord hold my hand, while I run this race
Cause I don’t want to run this race in vein.

Sometimes you have to understand that to survive, you have to get out your Gilead…
Oh Lord, guide my feet, while I run this race…
Oh Lord, I’m your child, while I run this race…
Oh, Lord, stand by me, while I run this race…

  • And that brings us to Rev. Charles Albert Tindley who wrote a gospel hymn entitled Stand by Me. It may be the second most popular African American hymn in hymnody behind Thomas Dorsey’s Precious Lord. In Stand by Me, Tindley does not call God by name. He teaches the manifestation of God by describing verse-by-verse the real day-to-day situation that his members faced as they tried to make their way in the new land of Philadelphia, (most of them having moved there from the Eastern Shore of Maryland). In the last line of each verse, Tindley leaves no doubt about the range and qualities of the force he is calling out to “keep company” with him as he moved through and beyond the challenges of his temporal existence.
Stand by Me (Charles Albert Tindley)
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me
When the storms of life are raging, stand by me
When the world is toss me
Like a ship upon the sea
Thou who rulest wind and water, stand by me

Stand the Storm

This spiritual, like Tindley’s hymn Stand by Me or The Storm is Passing Over, does not suggest that there is something we can do to make trouble go away. In these texts, we are told that in this life there will be storms, challenges and pain; however, there is a way to get through the storms as a follower of the Christ.

We’ll stand the storm, it won’t be long
We’ll anchor by-and-by
We’ll stand the storm, it won’t be long
We’ll anchor by-and-by

My ship is on the ocean
Anchor by-and-by
My ship is on the ocean
Anchor by-and-by

King Jesus is my captain…

It sails on to Canaan…
It sails on to freedom…
  • Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea Island Singers told me that her grandfather, who was a full-blooded African, told her that anything that stays green through the winter was good for the healing of the body. He would take her as a child through the woods in Terrell County, Georgia, and show her the herbs. She was a healer and a mid-wife until regulations made it impossible for her to continue.
She taught me songs that helped us to ‘move through anyway’ because there were ways to say what you thought if you knew the songs and the plays.

Reglar, reglar rolling under, is a response to a greeting. You enter a house of your neighbor and they say, “Come on in, how are you getting along?” And you respond, “Oh, it’s just reglar (regular) rolling under. (It’s like I’m being rolled under by a wheel, but being a wheel, I am still moving…)

Reglar, Reglar rolling under
Gimme the gourd to drink water
Reglar, Reglar rolling under
Gimme the gourd to drink water

Never seen the likes since I been born
Bull cow kicking on the milk cow’s horn

I don’t want no gopher snow water (water from a glass dipper)…
I don’t want no gopher snow water…

III. Baby Suggs Healing Ceremony

For a magnificent example of an unorthodox, brief and powerful resource for a worship service dedicated to Healing, for use at any time during the Church year, see Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved for the extemporaneous sermon given by Baby Suggs. Morrison introduces the sermon in this fashion:

“In the years when slavery still held sway, Baby Suggs across the river in Ohio had gathered the fragile community of survivals of slavery together. Living on the freedom side of the river was not easy, and coming together to remind us that we were worthy of the life energy that flowed through us helped us to continue…

After situating herself on a huge flat rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down.”
Toni Morrison. Beloved. NY: Plume (The Penguin Group) 1998, p. 88.
Also see the note at the end of this Cultural Resource unit.

IV. Modern Healing Movements (Drive-By Prayer Vigil)

In Indianapolis, Indiana, an epidemic of drive-by shootings caused the sheriff to say, “there is a ‘war’ going on in the city.” In response, a local minister called for Drive-by prayer vigils. His slogan was: If drive-by shootings can kill, drive-by prayer can heal.

Below are links about the effort to not stand idle in the midst of destruction.
  1. “Spirituals to Ring Out at Death Scenes: Drive-by prayer vigil begins at 11 a.m., will cover 4 locations of recent homicides,” The Indianapolis Star, Saturday, November 24, 2007, p. B5.

  2. Drive-By Prayer Vigil online:

  3. Drive-By Prayer Vigil. “The Drive-By Prayer Vigil was first organized in August 2006 by Indianapolis Pastor, A. Thomas Hill, senior pastor of Healing Streams Word and Worship Center and Indianapolis City Councilman, Paul Bateman, in response to a rash of homicides throughout the city of Indianapolis. The first week of August marked a total of 88 homicides in Marion County alone sparking the concerns to ‘do something different.’4

  4. Drive-By Prayer Vigil’s mission. “The mission of the Drive-By Prayer Vigils is for Christians to respond to the crime and violence in our streets through the effective and powerful vehicle of prayer, praying down the perfect order of heaven into the realm of earth. We believe we have the ability to fight against crime and violence by battling the spiritual forces responsible for the actions of the human predators.”

  5. Drive-By Prayer Vigil’s modus operandi (2006) “Sunday, August 6, 2006. (see: Indianapolis Star) an organized group of over 100 church members, neighbors along with local media paraded from site to site as warriors of prayer, declaring our prayer rights, ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.4

  6. Drive-By Prayer Vigil’s modus operandi (2007) “The vigil moves to the 2700 block of Carrollton Avenue at 11:45 a.m., then to 64th Street and College Avenue at 12:30 p.m., then to the corner of Roselawn and Emerson avenues at 1:15 p.m.

    “The locations were the scenes of the deaths of Latonya Thomas, 41; Stephen McDade, 31; Jane Pepper, 41; and Willie Lawrence, 30.5

  7. Drive-By Prayer Vigil’s music. “’Music has a way of drawing people and ministering to the soul,’ said Reverend A. Thomas Hill, himself a songwriter and vocalist. Two of the songs to be performed today (Saturday, November 24, 2007) are his: ‘We’re Taking the City in His Name,' and ‘We Declare Peace in the Streets'.5"

  8. Drive-By Prayer Vigil photograph. Danese Kenon/The Indianapolis Star, 2006 file photo. Caption: “The first Vigil: Ruth Motley led a line of people in Indianapolis’s first drive-by prayer vigil in August 2006 through an alley off East Market Street, the site of an earlier homicide.5


  1. “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” General Board of Global Ministries. The United Methodist Church.
    Online location: accessed 10 November 2007
  2. Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music.Online location: accessed 10 November 2007
  3. Thurman, Howard. Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1975 pp. 59-60.
  4. Drive-By Prayer Vigil. Online location: accessed 10 November 2007
  5. “Spirituals to ring out at death scenes: Drive-by prayer vigil begins at 11 a.m., will cover 4 locations of recent homicides.” The Indianapolis Star, Saturday. November 24, 2007, p. B5



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