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Deacon plans Abolitionist Hymnal


7:00 A.M. EST January 18, 2011

Slavery might seem like a term from a bygone era, but more than 27 million people worldwide are victims of modern-day human trafficking. The U.S. State Department estimates that 18,000-20,000 people are brought into the country each year for forced labor or prostitution.

The Rev. Carl Thomas Gladstone hopes to inspire churches to take action against slavery by adapting songs from the 19th-century freedom movement for a new CD, Abolitionist Hymnal.

Gladstone, a United Methodist deacon, is director of the Young Leaders Initiative in the Detroit Annual (regional) Conference. In his spare time, he mixes his skill as a musician with a desire to reclaim old songs and find new meaning in them.

He admits that he was ignorant of modern slavery before reading the book Not For Sale by David Batstone. In 2007, Batstone launched the Not For Sale campaign to raise awareness in the United States and fight trafficking in other countries.

“The abolitionists of the 19th century were fighting laws on books that said slavery was OK, which brought it to the surface a little bit,” Gladstone said. “Nowadays it is very underground, and so how would Christian congregations claim the identity of abolitionists today with that reality? We don’t even associate with people who might work in the slave trade.”

Gladstone found a way to help when he visited the National Underground Railroad Center in Cincinnati. Standing on the northern bank of a re-created river, he learned from a tour guide that a phrase in the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” —“A band of angels coming after me, coming for to carry me home”—referred to abolitionists.

As soon as people reached the other side of the river, “a ‘band of angels’ would come and take them to a safe house,” he said.

Hearing that story, “it all became very real” to him. So real that he kicked off the Abolitionist Hymnal project.

‘Reclaim our identity’

Gladstone said it has been easy to find abolitionist hymns, thanks to many online text libraries. But the fun part is creating new melodies and adding modern instrumentation and musical styles to make the songs accessible to contemporary listeners.

Along with composing suitable tunes, Gladstone looks for songs that require little alteration of the original text. “There are definitely choices to be made and some editing to do,” he said. “In some of the old (Northern) hymnals, there is a lot of language about the South—stuff about ‘the devil is from Georgia’ and stuff like that. So I tried to work around some of that.”

In other cases, he made changes to tie the music to the current horrors of brothels and child labor. Gladstone said his goal is to engage faith communities and open up discussion on how they can take part in dismantling slavery around the world.

He will initially offer downloads of acoustic versions of the songs, and plans to release a CD and bound hymnal by Freedom Sunday, March 13.

Gladstone cites the inspiration of Kru Nam, a thriving artist and modern-day abolitionist in Thailand who rescues orphans from brothels, saving them through her own courage and determination.

“While I might not be doing that, I can help raise awareness in Christian congregations like it happened in the 19th century,” he said. “We need to reclaim our identity as abolitionists, and, if this is a helpful tool in doing that, I’m eager to do it.”

*Walters is editor of the Michigan Area United Methodist Reporter, where this story originally appeared.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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