Latino worship music has strong Twin Cities Lutheran connection
On a recent Sunday morning at my neighborhood church, Redeemer Lutheran
in North Minneapolis, our worship leader Yolanda Williams improvised a
beautiful arrangement of “When the Poor Ones” (ELW 725) during
Communion. Miguel Manzano’s melody is gorgeous and José Antonio Olivar’s
poetry — written originally in Spanish and translated by Rev. Martin Seltz, a
Twin Cities pastor and church musician — is a powerful call to serve our
neighbor and seek justice for the world:
When the poor ones, who have nothing, still are giving;
When the thirsty pass the cup, water to share;
When the wounded offer others strength and healing:
We see God, here by our side, walking our way…
As I listened to the lovely melody, I thought about all the other Spanish-
language hymns, both from Latin America and Spain, that have enriched and
broadened the worship life of my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America and many other Christian denominations in the U.S. These hymns
cover a broad range of cultures and musical styles, but there seems to be a
common thread woven through their texts: a concern for justice, peace,
community, and the care of creation. Their poetry tends toward colloquial and
concrete language, based in the lived experience of Christian communities
struggling in the face of poverty and oppression.
The ELCA Spanish-language hymnal, Libro de Liturgia y Cántico, was
published by Augsburg Fortress in 1998, and includes more than 60 bi-
lingual hymns. “This Far By Faith,” the African-American hymnal that forms
the core of our worship at Redeemer Lutheran, has several Hispanic hymns
that we sing regularly. Eight hymns in With One Voice were bi-lingual,
originally written in Spanish. That relatively small number has grown to 23
hymns and one entire liturgy (Setting 7) in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
Guillermo Cuéllar, the composer of two of these hymns — “Let Us Go Now to
the Banquet” (ELW 523) and “Holy, Holy, Holy, Holy” (ELW 762) — paid a visit
to Minneapolis on July 29, presenting a program of music and stories from
his home country of El Salvador at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church (ELCA). Pastors
Patrick and Luisa Cabello Hansel hosted Cuéllar for both this concert and a
two-week “artist-in-residence” program during the Easter season of 2007.
Cuéllar, a lifelong Roman Catholic, has a strong bond with ELCA Lutherans
going back to the mid-1980s. At that time he was best known as the
composer of the “Salvadoran Folk Mass,” written in collaboration with the
martyred Salvadoran Archbishop, Oscar Romero, in the late 1970s.
I had been living in El Salvador for three years when I was asked in Spring
1989, by Stacy Kitahata of the ELCA’s Division for Global Mission, if I knew
any good musicians from Central America who might be able to help lead
music at the upcoming Global Mission Events. The first person who came to
mind was Guillermo Cuéllar. Even though I didn’t know Guillermo personally,
I knew from his recordings that he was a fine singer and guitarist, and his
compositions were held in high esteem by Christian communities through-
out the Americas.
I managed to reach Cuéllar by phone — he was living in Nicaragua at the time
— and to my surprise this very gregarious person who had never met me
immediately said yes to the invitation. His personal friendship with ELCA
missionaries Ken and Rhoda Mahler in Nicaragua undoubtedly influenced his
decision. I had known the Mahlers for a number of years.
I had the privilege of accompanying Cuéllar in leadership of music at the
1989 Global Mission Events, along with Mexican percussionist José Antonio
MacGregor. In 1990 we were joined by Tom Witt and Rev. José Antonio
Machado, both from Minneapolis.
Cuéllar said of his experience: “I never imagined that the people would like
this music so much…. We came with guitars, some drums… and the people
have reacted in a splendid manner.” A book and accompanying recording, El
Salvador: Songs for the New Life, documented the stories behind this music.
Throughout the ‘90s and into the present millennium, Cuéllar’s music —
along with that of other Latin American composers such as Pablo Sosa,
Gilmer Torres and Juan Antonio Espinosa, who were writing hymns with the
same commitment to peace and justice — became even better known in
Lutheran churches throughout the U.S. Taking the lead in promoting this
music were groups and individuals from the Twin Cities including Bread for
the Journey (www.bfjmusic.com), the Rev. Machado of Iglesia Luterana Todos
los Santos (later to become El Milagro), local singer/songwriter Donna Peña
(who made her own recording for GIA of Cuéllar’s Salvadoran Folk Mass in
1995), and Augsburg Fortress Publishers with the development of the new
Spanish-language hymnal. Dr. Gerhard Cartford, who had a significant role in
the creation of the Lutheran Book of Worship, was the editor of this very
comprehensive and historically important project. Rev. Victor Jortack, now a
pastor in the Rochester area, and this writer were asked to form part of the
music committee for the hymnal project.
Other publishing houses that have introduced a significant number of new
choral and hymn arrangements of Latino worship music include GIA and
Oregon Catholic Press. Both Cuéllar and this writer are grateful to Mark Sedio,
music director at Central Lutheran, Minneapolis, for his popular arrangements
for choir of Cuéllar’s “Santo” and my tune for “Take My Life That I May Be.”
This is just a partial listing of local artists and composers who have played an
important role in bringing Latin American hymnody to a wider English-
Without a doubt, Cuéllar’s best known hymn is “Let Us Go Now to the
Banquet” (ELW 523). The rousing polka accompaniment certainly doesn’t hurt
its popularity in these parts, but it’s the words that make the greatest
impression. They are paraphrased from the final homily of Father Rutilio
Grande, a Salvadoran Jesuit priest assassinated by a military death squad in
March of 1977, targeted for his support of the poorest of the poor. Grande’s
story is recounted alongside that of his friend Archbishop Romero in the
movie Romero, which features Cuéllar’s music.
On a warm summer night last July in Minneapolis, the gathered assembly at
St. Paul’s Lutheran sang this chorus, expertly translated (along with all of the
Salvadoran Folk Mass) by Minneapolis singer/songwriter Bret Hesla of Bread
for the Journey:
Let us go now to the banquet, to the feast of the Universe.
The table’s set and a place is waiting; come, ev’ryone, with your gifts to share.
Because of folks like Guillermo Cuéllar, and the collaboration of colleagues
and friends in the metro Twin Cities and throughout the ELCA, the songs that
are sung at our banquet tables have become a more faithful reflection of the
whole People of God — el Pueblo de Dios.
Spirituals, R & B, German chorales, gospel, salsa, rancheras, Scandinavian folk
hymns, polkas … that’s what we sing at our church in North Minneapolis
these days — many flavors mixed together to make a delicious stew,
nourishing the hearts and souls of all who come to the table.
Bill Dexheimer Pharris is an ELCA pastor and church musician, presently
serving as a staff chaplain at University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview
in Minneapolis. The hymn tune he wrote for “Take My Life That I May Be” (ELW
583) was inspired by his love of Latin American music.