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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

Encountering our neighbor

This May, the Folk Choir will make a three-week pilgrimage to six Holy Cross mission sites throughout Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. During this trip, the choir will encounter and walk with the people there, striving to discover and learn from the spiritual and cultural wisdom of these communities. Our aim is not to “save” the people we encounter, but to embody a spirit of openness, so we can learn from the rich cultural and spiritual traditions that we witness. Ultimately, our goal is to broaden our lived experience of faith by striving to see the face of Jesus in all we meet on our pilgrimage.

We know that this pilgrimage will challenge us, so we’ve been intentional in spending this whole year preparing for our journey. Our preparation started with the Folk Choir’s 25th Annual Concert for the Missions this past November, titled “Catch the Spirit,” where we explored, learned from and performed African-American sacred music, including jazz, gospel and spirituals. With this concert, we aimed to encounter “the neighbor” in our midst by learning the history and songs from traditions of music that arose through the struggles of African-American people during the last several hundred years.

We aimed to understand and incorporate these traditions into our own lives of faith, which offer some of the most authentic expressions of the Gospel that have arisen from the American experience. This music is filled with such joy, hope and passion, and yet we miss the whole point — we miss Jesus’ invitation in the Gospel if we lose sight of American slavery and oppression as its context. This music flourished in spite of the pain and suffering of one of the worst instances of systematized oppression in the modern world. Because this music comes from a culture outside of our own, we came together to ask God how He continues to move in an experience outside of our own. We asked this question through a careful study of the music, but also by inviting expert guides in each of the styles to walk with us as we learned and performed the music. Ultimately, we were joined at the concert by master musicians in each of these styles, and while they accompanied us through this music, we were able to — in a small way at least — transform our conceptions of who God can be in our midst. This concert was our first primer for the pilgrimage, training us for the eventual challenge of encountering “the neighbor” outside of the comfort of our home.

In addition to the concert, we have designed and implemented a class this semester through the Kellogg Institute, titled “Social Justice and Accompaniment: Cross-Cultural Understanding in East Africa.” The purpose of this class is to intellectually, culturally and spiritually prepare us for the pilgrimage through a series of guest lectures from experts in various aspects of East African culture, politics, history and spirituality. In this class, we have discussed everything from the most pragmatic questions of how to pack to looking at the history of colonialism and how this shapes our understanding of culture on the African continent. Most importantly, we have focused and worked to understand the ministry of Holy Cross in Africa and how this work impacts those on the margins of our immediate encounters in American culture.

As we invite Christ’s transformational grace into ourselves individually and the Folk Choir community, our hope is to invite others to experience this grace by telling the story with our recordings and videos. For our 2019 Concert for the Missions, the program will take on a reimagined format: a multimedia presentation with photos, videos and storytelling about the pilgrimage. Through our journey and upcoming concert, we’d like to invite you into the powerful work of the Holy Cross Missions and the transformation that is possible in our lived faith when we engage the beauty, richness and diversity of the Catholic tradition in a global Church.

Dr. J.J. Wright serves in Campus Ministry as the Director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir and can be reached at Learn more about Campus Ministry at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.