Have you ever heard of the man, Jester Hairston? If you have not, perhaps take a few moments to look him up and enjoy getting to know this great man.
Jester was the grandson of slaves and grew up in North Carolina. After attending Tufts University with a music major, he continued his education at Julliard School of Music in New York and later became a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild. He enjoyed a career as an actor, musician, composer, and choir leader. During this career, he became a leading expert on spirituals and wrote a number of memorable songs that are still sung today.
One of which is the very popular “Amen”. It made a notable appearance in the final scene of the movie Lilies of the Field where Sidney Poitier sings along with the nuns whom he built a chapel for before driving off into the night.
Through their repetitive and story-like nature, African-American spirituals were oral traditions that were easy to remember and transmit. Through the song, “Amen”, Jester was able to tell the story of Jesus in a way that became progressively energetic and celebratory. With a chorus which consists of the single word ‘amen’ sung in worshipful spirit five times, the narrative is held within the song’s verses.
It begins with Jesus’ birth and portrays Him in His childhood: “See the little baby wrapped in a manger on Christmas morning. See Him in the temple talkin’ with the elders who marveled at His wisdom” all the while, the ‘amens’ continue.
In verse two, Jesus’ ministry begins: “See Him at the Jordan where John was baptizin’ and savin’ all sinners. See Him at the seaside talkin’ to the fishermen and makin’ them disciples” as the congregation continues to celebrate.
Verse three introduces the beginning of the end of Jesus’ story, pre-cross and resurrection: “Marchin’ in Jerusalem over palm branches in pomp and splendor. See Him in the garden, prayin’ to His Father in deepest sorrow.”
As we enter into verse four, the story’s conclusion is found: “Led before Pilate, then they crucified Him, but He rose on Easter – Hallelujah – He died to save us and He lives forever.”
So simple, a child can learn and retell this story. And yet, it’s depth which portrays the saving message of Jesus Christ is one we must still hear today. In its simplicity, the child not only understands the salvation story, but they come to know from constant repetition that the celebration we take part in is good news for each of us. We say ‘amen’ again and again because our hearts overflow with gratefulness for the grace of God displayed for the sinner.
The child is also meant to understand the unconditional nature of this song. Jesus comes to save all sinners. There are no qualifiers. There were no distinguishments to be spoken of. It did not matter who one was, what their background was, or any other quality one might hold, spirituals have always been known to express salvation to all who might receive their Savior, even from the mouths of those inhumanely enslaved. The message of slave communities was the same message once delivered through the Scriptures – that all fall short of the glory of God and yet no human is out of reach of Christ’s sacrificial love, including their captors.
As we continue in the spirit of celebrating Easter Sunday this week and throughout the year, recognize how impossibly transcendent God is – that He is the Creator of all and that His nature and power are beyond our comprehension. However, He chose to live an immanent life, stepping into this world we occupy to seek and save the lost. As you engage with your small piece of the world, be incarnate in the lives of the lost and the broken, just as Christ became incarnate in yours. Let us preach the only Good News which can save a soul and draw people into the beautiful existence which is found within this singular Bride of Christ.
Love you all,
Young Adult Minister – Evan McNeff
Hear Jester lead in the singing of “Amen” at an international choral festival in 1990: