Black History Month marked with music, testimony

Black History Month is a serious matter at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spartanburg, S.C. This past February leaders of the congregation, the Rev. Don Rollins, and Music Director Keith Plumley, wanted to create services that people would remember.

The congregation invited a local African drumming group for one service. “The service was very well received,” said Plumley, noting that he armed the ushers with cotton balls in advance. “Ten African drummers in a room can be pretty loud.”

The service, which included a congregational sing-along, explored the use of African-American music from very early in this country’s history, including from the Gullah region along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.

Rollins preached on African American traditions at that service. At another service, Tony Fisher, Spartanburg’s director of public safety, spoke on the challenges of building a law enforcement career in the South as an African-American.

All month the sanctuary was decorated with 52 flags, each one three-by-five feet, representing most countries in Africa. “That was very visual,” said Plumley. “The flags created quite a wow factor.”

For another service that month, Plumley reached into the evangelical community, inviting someone he’d last spoken to 20 years ago, Myrtle Hall Smith, to come and sing. She had sung for 27 years with the Billy Graham crusades and continues to be active in the evangelical movement.

She accepted his invitation. She sang “His Eye is On the Sparrow” one Sunday. “It was wonderful and probably historical,” said Plumley, “to have her in our church.” He noted that the invitation to Smith was part of an effort to identify the church as being approachable and visible. “If we do not reach out and market our product we may be looked upon as secluded. When local people hear that someone like Myrtle Hall Smith has been at our church singing, it means something.”

He noted that his connections to Hall and to the UU church had both come about through his job as marketing director for the local Steinway piano dealership. “I’ve rubbed shoulders with a lot of musicians. That’s how I first met Myrtle. And I sold a piano to the church in 2006. “They wanted it for a cocktail party, and I was so intrigued about a cocktail party at a church that I came and visited.”