Music and Relational Power
by Bob Mesle
In the middle of the night, deep in the dark of despair, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., would call Mahalia Jackson on the phone and ask if she would sooth and strengthen him by singing a gospel song. Her singing, along with the long familiar words and strains of gospel music, gave him peace, courage, and strength to face the trials ahead.
Relational power begins with radical openness to the world around us, which sadly sometimes demands openness even to suffering. We do not celebrate suffering, but the Buddha taught us that the only healthy way to deal with suffering is to look it in the face and see if for what it is. Before we can move toward the third aspect of relational power, deepening community and sustaining relationships, we have to stand in the middle, in the heart of the matter and decide who we will be. We have to have the strength, courage, and integrity to take life in and choose who we will be in our response to it all.
In calling on Mahalia Jackson’s singing of the gospel spirituals, Martin was immersing himself in the strength of his community’s past suffering and endurance, courage, and strength, remembering and especially feeling that identity over time that refused to be defeated.