Joy Unspeakable: Radical Love and Deep Healing

by Helms Jarell

Joy Unspeakable
Is not silent.
it moans, hums, and bends
to the dancing universe.
It is a fractal of transcendent hope, 
a hologram of God’s heart, 
a black hole of unknowing.

For our free African ancestors, 
joy unspeakable is drum talk
that invites the spirits
to dance with us,
and tell tall tales by the fire.

For the desert Mothers and Fathers,
joy unspeakable is respite
from the maddening crowds,
and freedom from 
“Church” as usual.

For enslaved Africans during the
Middle Passage,
joy unspeakable is the surprise of living one more day,
and the freeing embrace of death
chosen and imposed.

For Africans in bondage in the Americas,
joy unspeakable is that moment of mystical encounter
when God tiptoes into the hush arbor,
testifies about Divine suffering,
and whispers in our ears,
“Don’t forget, I taught you how to fly
on a wing and a prayer,
when you’re ready
let’s go!”

Joy Unspeakable is humming
“How I got over”
after swimming safely 
to the other shore of a swollen Ohio river
When you know that you can’t swim.
It is the blessed assurance
that Canada is far, but not that far.

For Africana members of the
“Invisible institutions,”
the emerging black church,
joy unspeakable is
practicing freedom
while chains still chafe,
singing deliverance
while Jim Crow stalks,
trusting God’s healing
and home remedies,
prayers, kerosene,
and cow patty tea.

For the tap dancing, boogie woogie,
rap/rock/blues griots
who also hear God,
joy unspeakable is that space/time/joy continuum thing
that dares us to play and pray
in the interstices of life, 
it is the belief that the phrase
“The art of living” 
means exactly what is says.

Joy Unspeakable 
is both FIRE AND CLOUD,
the unlikely merger of 
trance and high tech lives
ecstatic songs and jazz repertoire
Joy unspeakable is
a symphony of incongruities
of faces aglow and hearts on fire
and the wonder of surviving together.


Joy Unspeakable by Barbara A. Holmes
from Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church


One Sunday morning, I am attending a church just a few miles from my neighborhood. Even though close in proximity, it could not be further away from the people with whom I live and serve. In this church, you can see visible signs of systemic investment and economic gain. Unspoken signals of generational affluence and strategic advancement adorn bodies, architecture, and parking lots.  

I am here because my husband, a musician, has arranged to play a jazz worship service. The service begins and the singer, Dawn, wakes us from slumber with an energetic “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on Freedom.” During the moments of confession, Dawn and the band lead us through “Down by the Riverside.”  The preacher speaks strong words of liberation and action. The service is going just as expected.

Next, Dawn begins to sing, “Give me a bottle of justice. I’ll take that bottle of justice. I hear it’ll set you free.” The song, “Justice” by Cassandra Wilson, begins to capture me.  I want for Dawn what she is asking for herself. Yes, give Dawn “a slice of opportunity.  I hear it’ll fill you up!” Dawn is my friend. I want what Dawn wants. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15)

Then the next line in the songs hits me hard. “Give me that box of reparations. I’ll have that box of reparations. No, not the little one, I want the big one that matches my scars. I’ll think have some of that.” My reaction was uncontrollable. Sitting in this affluent church, among silent and upright congregants, I gasped and screamed aloud, “Yes!”  I moved to the music, clapped my hands, and begged God, “Please God, give Dawn justice. Give my neighbors justice. Give us Justice.” 

Red-faced and overcome – with embarrassment, thrill, hope, lament, pleading, fear, and trembling – I was experiencing Joy Unspeakable. 

Joy Unspeakable

Is not silent.

it moans, hums, and bends

to the dancing universe.

It is a fractal of transcendent hope, 

a hologram of God’s heart, 

a black hole of unknowing.

Dawn’s voice is speaking for the oppressed of our society: Black and Brown people, poor people, LGBTQ people, marginalized people. “Give me reparations,” she sings. Her message clashes with beliefs deeply held in this congregation’s culture about its ambitions and worthiness, its sense of propriety and safety. Even so, she is saying them. She’s not just saying them, she’s singing them, breathing them. Rhythm, voice, singing and breathing, calling forth, drawing us toward  justice and repair. And it is astounding, marvelous, mysterious. It is miraculous.

A Black woman in this southern, segregated, white, wealthy church sings a song of joy and justice that strikes the ears, pierces the heart, and woos the soul. How can she have such faith? How is it that her belief is so deep, so strong, so passionate that she can pray for, sing for, hope for anything, much less reparation and wholeness? Within her is an unrelenting assurance of God’s abundant reign. Where does this resolve come from? How is it so powerful that it is beginning to fall on me?

Joy Unspeakable 

is both FIRE AND CLOUD,

the unlikely merger of 

trance and high tech lives

ecstatic songs and jazz repertoire

Joy unspeakable is

a symphony of incongruities

of faces aglow and hearts on fire

and the wonder of surviving together.

At this moment of unspeakable joy I am reminded of another radical woman of color who sang of great joy in the midst of great sorrow. She prophetically spoke truth to power – casting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.He has shown strength with his arm;he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,and lifted up the lowly;he has filled the hungry with good things,and sent the rich away empty.He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors,  to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

The Magnificat, Luke 1: 46-55

In her book, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, Barbara A. Holmes writes,

There is no response, other than radical love, that is up to the task of healing transgenerational wounds.  The healing begins within. Questions that we lay on those inner altars and that receive no response in one generation are handed down to the next.

When you know that this world is not your home because you are deemed to be inferior by virtue of your color, gender, sexual identity, or class status, you must look beyond what can be perceived by the natural eye to find solace.  Moses Berry describes this lived transcendence as ‘always looking beyond the blue.” The blue sky was not a roof over their oppression; rather, it was permeable point of reference for prayer and entreaties.

This Advent season, may you turn your eyes beyond the blue, to a place where repair is made and justice is sought. May you dare to play and pray. May you practice freedom while chains still chafe. May you sing deliverance even in captivity. And may you do so in community, no longer an architectural structure or artificial construct, but an organic system of memory and responsibility. A people and place of liberation and great unspeakable joy.


Questions for Reflection:
In Meditations of the Heart, Howard Thurman writes, “ We look at ourselves in this waiting moment- the kinds of people we are.  The questions persist: What are we doing with our lives? What are the motives that order our days? What is the end of our doings?  Where are we trying to go? Where do we put the emphasis and where are our values focused? For what end do we make sacrifices? Where is my treasure and what do I love most in life?  What do I hate most in life and to what am I true?

“If the Ghost Hunters snuck up behind me as I was trying to write, they might see a universe of slave liberators, political agitators, Baptist preachers, exuberant orators, beloved writers and incomparable musicians–so many musicians–arrayed around me all in chorus, urging and cajoling and daring me to somehow dig a little deeper.” 

Toure’, quote from Joy Unspeakable

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