Storing and Retrieving Certain Hymns for Special Occasions

by Philip Keillor

I hope to never forget the time I was in a congregation and singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” with sincere, joyous feeling—for the first time in my life. The place was the Episcopal student center on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. The occasion was a gathering of like-minded Christians from churches in the community. The reason for gathering was to celebrate the announcement of a handful of local churches who had declared themselves sanctuaries for refugees fleeing persecution from United States supported guerillas and repressive governments in an undeclared war in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Such refugees were being denied sanctuary in our country because their “repression” wasn’t recognized as valid. Those of us who weren’t members of the sanctuary churches were present to promise our support in whatever small ways we could assist.

“A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing; Our helper he amid the flood…” we roared, knowing that sheltering people fleeing the strife in Central America was the Christian thing to do, but illegal in the eyes of our government that was funding the Contra rebels in Nicaragua without approval of Congress. “For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe. His craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.” We thought we knew who the foe was.

Not knowing the consequences of such defiance, but fearing that fines and jail time might be suffered by some in our group, if caught, we sang with fervor; “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.” With joy and certainty in the rightness of our defiance, we swept into the final verse, “That word above all earthly powers, No thanks to them, abideth, The Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also – the body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever!” We felt the presence of the Spirit and sincerely believed that God was on our side in this bold endeavor.

“A Mighty Fortress” has not aroused my passion since that night. I’ve been often seated safely in churches deliberately made and kept harmless and safe from potential hostile actions of neighbors, the community, or the government. In these familiar surroundings, the hymn’s triumphant, defiant tone sounds off-key and the words seem a self-serving statement of God’s endorsement of our established secure place in the community. So, how about saving this grand old hymn for occasions when we might really need it and mean it? Maybe we’ll bring it out for a nostalgic singing during some future reunion of old timers who participated in declaring a few churches a sanctuary for refugees for a few years so long ago.

Philip Keillor was a long-time member of Arbor Covenant Church in Madison, Wisconsin. He was a coastal engineer and was active in local organizations that provide services to homeless people and promote justice and diversity in the community.

See all articles by Philip Keillor