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The Washington Post Magazine Online

Today's Topic: God and Jazz

with Marc Fisher

Monday, February 14, 2000
1 p.m. EST

church photos
Photograph by Larry Fink

Westminster Presbyterian Church has a lot of experience in fashioning a communal whole out of disparate parts in its isolated Southwest Washington neighborhood. But what happened when the church dared to mix God with jazz, black with white, and gay with straight came as a surprise. Mostly, a pleasant surprise.

Marc Fisher, whose article "What Church Is" appeared in yesterday's Washington Post Magazine, will be online today to field questions and comments.
church photos
Photograph by Larry Fink

Marc Fisher is a columnist at The Washington Post and author of "After the Wall: Germany, the Germans and the Burdens of History." The book is a reporter's view of Germany after reunification, focusing on the country's struggle with its history during a century of trauma and aggression. This exploration of the new and lingering walls within German society stems from Fisher's four years as the Bonn and Berlin bureau chief of The Post, beginning with the dramatic events of autumn 1989.

Fisher currently serves as The Postís Special Reports Editor, a position in which he writes and edits features and enterprise writing for the newspaperís front page.

Fisher says: "When someone suggested turning the church into a jazz club one night a week, there were those among the faithful who had their doubts. Some members said they just didn't like jazz. Some wondered whether the people who came for the music could every really feel at home in a Presbyterian church. Church, after all, thrives when people are comfortable; people like to be with those who are like them."

Please read Marc Fisher's cover story, "What Church Is" and then submit your questions and comments in advance and during the Live Online hour.

Here is a copy of today's transcript.


Washington, DC: Terrific article, Marc. These jazz concerts at the church regrettably appear to draw only the middle-aged and elderly members of the black community. Do you think, in an effort to reach out to younger folks who donít appreciate that kind of music, the church would consider having pop or rap concerts there? Some rap is actually pretty positive and inspirational.

Marc Fisher: Thanks very much. Actually, I've seen an increasingly mixed audience at Jazz Night, with a smattering of kids and a fair number of folks in their 20s and 30s as well. I don't think the church is quite ready to branch out into rap, but they are sponsoring a World Music series on occasional Saturday nights.

Alexandria, VA: Marc, why after spending so much time with us did you decide to use the term Homosexual, -which is most often used disparagingly-, rather than Gay?

Also, why did you often mention an someone's sexuality when quoting them?

Marc Fisher: Well, my Webster's tells me that there's no disparaging connotation to the word homosexual, and as for gay, while it is finding increasing acceptance, the dictionary still lists four other more prominent meanings before it gets around to "5. homosexual," which brings us back to where we started. No slight intended, just using words for what they mean.

Marc Fisher: Hello, folks. The calls and email reacting to Sunday's story have been terrific, but I look forward to this hour to see what aspects of the story readers have found most intriguing or upsetting. So let's go.

Indianapolis, Indiana: With clear biblical references against the Homosexual and Lesbian lifestyle which are considered abominations to God and condemed just as other immoral sexual sins such as adultry, lasciviousness, uncleaness
fornication,incest, and lust in such passages as : Leviticus 18:22,20:13; 1Kings 14:24; Deuteronomy 23:17,18; Genesis 13:13, 19:5,19:24; Romans 1:24-28,32; Galation 5:19-22, I Corinthians 6:9- effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind-Jude 7,8; how could the Westminster Presbyterian Church be considered a church which is to represent a righteous and Holy God who is merciful and loving and will yet judge all who will not submit to his Holy Word in a life transformed and pleasing to him?

Marc Fisher: Well, without getting into the particulars of scripture, let's just say that there are certainly those at Westminster and elsewhere in the Presbyterian Church who agree with you, but the vast majority of members at Westminster are there in part because they believe that the church should offer a welcoming home to all, including homosexuals.

DC: Your book "After the Wall" is one of the best books I've ever read on Germany. Many of my friends feel the same way. Congratulations on writing such an excellent, definitive work. Given your experiences as Bonn Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, what do you make of the new government in Austria? Are you concerned?

Marc Fisher: Thanks--It's a bit off topic, so I'll be brief: I'm not much concerned about the new govt in Austria. I've met Haider several times and he's a small-minded, small-town pol who's much more of a racist anti-foreigner than he lets on these days, but whose appeal is limited. What we're seeing is a hysterical reaction by the EU--with more than a bit of Schadenfreude (taking joy in others' pain) at work. Those countries would be far better off addressing the extremists in their own lands than making Austria's troubles seem bigger than they really are.

Washington DC: Do you really feel music will bridge the racial divide in Southwest Washington? Are whites really welcome there? I would be concerned about acceptance outside of the chuch.

Marc Fisher: Let's be honest: No number of concerts, no series of successes by a single church is going to bridge the racial gap in Southwest or elsewhere in this city. But if the troubles of Southwest and the deadening legacy of urban renewal are to be eased, it will start with efforts like Jazz Night. The first traces of trust are the hardest and most important to establish.
And yes, whites are most welcome at Jazz Night. No need to worry about that. It's a warm, open atmosphere.

Alexandria VA: I greatly enjoyed seeing what has happened to the old Westminster Church that used to be on 7th St. Once again I am distressed that Southwest is constantly portrayed as a black community when in fact over half of Southwest was white. Our part of Southwest was not decrepit! How could it have been Negro removal when we didn't want to leave either. I live in a diversified community, that I love, now but will always be a Southwest person at heart! Schools were segregated in those days and there were enough white students to fill 2 elementary schools and Jefferson Junior High. I do wish we could have all gone to school together though.

Marc Fisher: I'm sorry if you got the impression from the story that Southwest is exclusively black. It is not. Nor was the old Southwest, as you note. But SW was always divided racially, and that is a situation that urban renewal did little to alter. Mayor Williams' vision for a renewed (uh oh, there goes that word again!) SW waterfront promises to create incentives for developers to create a truly mixed community--without massive displacement.

arlington, va: It's wonderful to see a church filled with different walks of life celebrating a higher authority with such respect for each other instead of finding fault and sin in everything, as many often do lately. Do you think this will inspire other places of worship to incorporate the same type of celebration?

Marc Fisher: That would be lovely--the success of Jazz Night has been to demonstrate that Washington has a large and glorious collection of musicians who are hungry for good venues, and churches certainly are capable of providing those. No one at Westminster, I'm sure, would mind seeing their success imitated elsewhere.

New York, NY: Given the long tradition of playing "Jazz Bach," why not have a bass player try a jazz accompaniment or interpretation of a Sunday hymn--on Sunday, of course.

Marc Fisher: Actually, Westminster has tried some interesting experiments, including having some of the Friday night musicians come in to the Sunday morning services to express their version of spiritual sounds. Both the congregants and the musicians say it was a moving and worthwhile event.

Mt. Rainier MD: I loved your article on church and jazz. I think it's super what this one community of believers is doing in trying to reach out to others. And I think it is a real sign of health that your article and the people you interviewed didn't try to sugar-coat this into an 'everything is just perfect in our house' kind of story. Real people have real problems with each other, and maturity is when they work the problems out rather than ignoring them. This congregation shows a lot of maturity, and it's attracting great people.

Marc Fisher: You said it. It's sometimes easy to look at a congregation like Westminster that spends lots of time and energy analyzing itself and its motives and say, boy, don't they have better things to do? But when you see the results at Jazz Night, and the way people come together to make it happen, you see the effect of all that talk and emotion--and it is, as you say, maturity at work.

New York, NY: Do you think Jesus Christ might have liked jazz? Why or why not?

Marc Fisher: I'll give you the answer that Rev. Brian Hamilton, the pastor at Westminster, gave me: There's a spirit in jazz that is as powerful and moving as anything heard in most churches on Sunday morning.

Riverdale, NY: Have young musicians been invited? Either to play jazz--or to learn from the old guys?
What about the female jazz players?

Marc Fisher: Ah, Riverdale, NY--a jazz hotbed, as I recall. Absolutely--the mix of ages up on stage at Westminster is a joy to watch. Several very young groups have performed, and even more interesting, quite a few young players, from Howard University and elsewhere, have sat in with the veterans, with excellent results. As for women, there've been a few singers, but no instrumentalists, at least on the weeks that I've been by.

New York City: Great article! Visitors to New York City may want to follow up by taking in jazz at St. Peter's Luterhan Church -Lexington Avenue and 54th Street-, which has had a jazz ministry for quite some years. Information can be found at http:--www.saintpeters.org-jazz-index.html.

Marc Fisher: Excellent idea. The original jazz ministry, that of John Gansel, the pastor to many of New York's night people in the 50s and 60s, was an inspiration to Brian and Ruth Hamilton at Westminster.

Mt. Rainier MD: As a singer in a couple of church choirs, I have a very clear idea what kind of music a church should have - whatever kind reaches the hearts of the people there. It's silly to ask if 'Jesus would like jazz'. He didn't know about Bach or Beethoven either, and they would have sounded at least as weird to a 1st century Jew! We call theirs church music from habit as much as anything, beautiful though it can be.

Marc Fisher: Well said.

Washington, Dc: Congratulations on your exceptionally well written and most thoughtful article about jazz at Westminster. You captured the spirit of both Jazz Night and the Westminster congregation. One correction, however. In 1991 the Presbyterian Chursh -USA- approved ministers officiating at same sex unions and churches prmitting the use of their buildings for such ceremonies as long as it was understood that those unions are not the same as marriages between a man and a woman. Again, thanks for the superb article. Jeanne MacKenzie, Pastor Emerita Westminster Presbyterian Church

Marc Fisher: Thanks--Rev. MacKenzie, who preceded the Hamiltons at the helm at Westminster, is a beloved figure there, and set the stage for Jazz Night by recreating Westminster as a congregation open to any and all.

Washington, DC: Great article, Marc. Here's my question: Do members of Westminster's congregation go to Jazz Night? What effect has Jazz Night had on the more traditional function of the church?

Marc Fisher: Some Westminster members attend Jazz Night for fun; more attend as volunteers, to prepare and serve food, man the cashier's desk, etc. There is clearly a divide between the Friday night crowd and the Sunday morning group--one that raises the question of whether Westminster has become two separate congregations. But whether they attend or not, most of the members seem very glad that Jazz Night is working, and it makes them even more secure in their belief that theirs is a vibrant congregation.

Washington, DC: Do you predict that future Jazz nights will be, at least for the present moment, flooded by those who don't live in the community due to your publicity.

In your opinion, will this be recieved in a positive light, or will regulars feel that they are "on display".

Marc Fisher: Excellent question, and one that the folks at Westminster have been struggling with for several weeks now. I guess we'll find out Friday night. My prediction is that there'll be a big bump in attendance as the curious come out to see, and then in the weeks ahead, Jazz Night will find itself with larger audiences, but nothing overwhelming. More a hope than a prediction, I suppose.
But you're right--there is some nervousness about the impact. Publicity and its impact never quite create a straight line. We shall see.

Washington, DC: We have had Marsha Meekins, flutist from Baltimore, several times. Lady Byron has only been once actually. Earl Banks has scheduled British drummer, Cheryl Alleyne, for later in March. She's young and incredible. We've been talking about scheduling a month of women musicians. Thanks, Marc, for a great piece of writing. You could have focused the piece more, or just, on Jazz Night itself. You chose to do more on the congregation in relation to Jazz Night. We're glad you did, but could you comment on why you chose to expand the subject?

Marc Fisher: Well, the original idea was to write simply about Jazz Night, but it became clear as I spent time at Westminster that the decision to invite jazz into the church involved far more than musical taste. A whole complex of issues, involving race, sexuality, age, income disparities, and neighborhood, were wrapped up in the decision, and it struck me that the story of Jazz Night was also the story of our city and the decisions people make about where to live, with whom to associate, and what to believe. It doesn't get much better than that in my line of work.

Washington, DC: Marc,

I read your terrific article on Sunday and want to thank you.

My question: You wrote that the Church was not sure as to whether they should leave the cross lit as muscians played, or turn it off. They decided to leave it on.

Aside from the lit cross, is everything else about Jazz night secular, or, does faith, whether through prayer or whatever play a role in the night.


Marc Fisher: Thanks. Yes, everything but for the light on the cross is secular--except that this is happening in a church, and you see the people serving food and running the sound board, and you know they are members of the church, and so as you listen to the music, you inevitably start to think about the spirit and perhaps you block that out, or perhaps the music and the church seem contradictory to you, or maybe it all meshes and you leave there somehow heightened by the experience. It all depends. But at least you've been forced to consider the question, which I think is what Rev. Hamilton and the members of Westminster, and some of the musicians as well, have in mind.

Upper East Side, New York City: It -isn't- silly to ask whether Jesus might have liked jazz.
The question is tricky because it evokes all the nettlesome difficulties of the trinity. After all, Jesus -qua- person might have enjoyed jazz because he was incarnate, had ears, etc. As for God the father, and the holy spirit, though--no ears. Yet they're supposed to be able hear and see everything.
But that raises another problem--since God in any Western conception is supposed to be omniscient, there aren't any surprises available to him -or her-. Yet jazz is supposed to be, in Whitney Balliett's phrase, the "sound of surprise". So God shouldn't get the point, and might just be bored.

Marc Fisher: Well. Can't say I follow you all the way, but there's something there. A philosopher might have to step in to help on this.

DC Native: Hello Marc,

First of all whatever it takes to raise the spirit in a human life to be saved...so be it. I'm a fan of all music....I get in many debates with colleagues regarding Kirk Franklin...its the message not the messenger.

As for the gay issue....hate the sin not the sinner. For the mention Im a heterosexual baptist -AME-.

Lastly, I've been reading historical books written by Professor John Hendrik Clark, if you've heard of him. Please your opinion.

Thank you and God Bless

Marc Fisher: Thanks for the comment. I'm not familiar with John Clarke. Maybe some other folks out there can jump in.

Bethesda MD: Hi Marc,

Why did you decide to write this article?

Marc Fisher: I was originally tipped to the Jazz Night program by Rev. Hamilton, who thought it might fit in with the kind of stories I cover in my Potomac Confidential column in the Post Magazine. But when I visited Westminster, I quickly discovered that there was far more happening here than I could comfortably describe in a column about music in a church. So I kept going back to Westminster and the story developed from there.

Washington,DC: Did you find anyone in the congregation who is against Jazz Night, who doesn't like the direction the congregation is going?

Marc Fisher: There are some people in the congregation who have decided that they just want nothing to do with Jazz Night--not out of any antipathy toward the program, but because the music just doesn't speak to them. As for the direction of the congregation, there have been some people who felt that the church was becoming too oriented toward its gay members, that it was becoming a "gay church," and some of them spoke out about that, and some remain uncomfortable. But nearly all have stayed in the church and tried to work it out.

DC Native: Hey Mark...John Henrik Clark is a professor from Howard University. Any local bookstore would or should have him. Since your not sure...I would highly recommend. He explains religion in the most realistic way. He opened my heart and eyes to the true beginning of Catholicism....etc.

Marc Fisher: Thanks for the info.

Bethesda, MD: A little follow-up...as Marc mentioned in his article, many of the most out-spoken members of Westminster who do not want the church to be identified as a "gay church" are the gays who worship there. Our church is a community of believers, not a community of gays. Our world and work is much larger than the issue of sexuality.

Marc Fisher: Well said. This is one of the most intriguing themes at Westminster, and I tried to capture that in the article--the desire of many of the church's gay members to be part of something larger, something not ghettoized--a theme that is also part of Westminster's mission in Southwest, racially and economically and spiritually.

Washington, DC: As to whether God likes Jazz; I'd guess to say that if the trinity were to stoop so low as to offer a verbal opinion it may say something like: "It's cute."
But, I think that God would say this of all masterful music wheter Mozart or Coltraine.

No human creation holds a candle to the music the universe makes.

"When Man thinks God laughs"

Marc Fisher: Thanks. (See the posting above about God, Jesus, and jazz.)

Cheverly, MD: I thoroughly enjoyed the article, and I plan to attend this Friday with my children. Thank you for introducing the various hot spots throughout the Washington area. I was born in the District, and I continue to find new sites to visit.

Marc Fisher: Thanks very much. I hope lots of folks do come out this Friday, but with the understanding that it may be an unusally large crowd. (I might even suggest that some folks wait a week or two before heading over.)

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