Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced Him in the side?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
The season of Lent is upon us. And with this season comes a treasure of hymns that although carry melodies of sadness that lead us to reflection, also bring haunting beauty that connects deeply to our emotions. And for me, whenever I think of “Lent music”, I think of “Were You There”. This song will always be ingrained in my memory because this is one of the hymns that we used to sing quite often in my early years of choral singing back in the Philippines. Whenever Lent season came, we would almost always line this up as a choir anthem in one of our worship services. Although the arrangement and setting would sometimes vary, the lyrics and basic melody stay the same. In whatever form, it has always touched a number of us every time we sing or hear it.
According to David Bjorlin, a minister of the Evangelical Covenant Church, “Were You There” is one of the most prominent and popular of the African-American spirituals. Yet, like most spirituals, its origins are impossible to trace, borne not from the pen of an individual, but out of the communal slave experience. Also, as Paul Westermeyer notes in the companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, its first published iteration came in 1899 in William E. Barton’s Old Plantation Songs in the section “Recent Negro Melodies”, with originally containing only four verses. The fifth verse was added in the United Methodist Hymnal, along with many other songbooks.
The series of questions that forms the basis of the song is obviously not meant to be taken literally; none of us were physically present at the passion of Christ. Rather, the questions are meant to function as a form “to remember”. Yet, it is much more simple than mental recall of an event. It calls the community to remember the past to present, to bring these historic events to the now and make them part of our story. The song also calls us to remember the African-American slave experience out of which the song arose. For African-Americans, this remembering of the cross allowed them to claim the Christ who knew their suffering and stood in solidarity with their oppression.
In 2012, the lyrics and melody of “Were You There” inspired me to do an arrangement for our men’s group, Keynote Vocal Group, which we sang as part of our Good Friday Service back then. This year, we’ll get to sing it again. I hope that as you listen to it in our Good Friday Service, you’ll feel the connection and come to remembrance, not only to the passion of Christ, but also to the suffering our African-American brothers and sisters endured in their times of oppression.
-Rey Lambatin, Choir Director