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Waters of Wisconsin Program Blog

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Down to the River to Pray

Thu, 11/20/2014 - 2:34pm -- Kirsten Shead

Have you ever stood along one of those rivers that flows with such beauty and power that you can’t help but stop and watch? There is something about the way that they move—the speed in the center, the slack water and swirling eddies near the bank, the white churning around that one lone boulder that has somehow managed to survive the pressing stream and hold tight to its footing. And those rivers have a sound, a kind of hum. Neither the rushing of a waterfall nor the rhythmic crash of an incoming tide, but an almost melodious hum, a droning, rhythmic song.

French Broad River, Hot Springs, NC

French Broad River, Hot Springs, NC

I spent a number of days along such a river early this summer in the Great Smoky Mountains. I was attending the Wildgoose Festival, a gathering at the intersection of faith/spirituality, ecology, and social justice along the French Broad River. I was walking past a session being led by Ched Myers on Watershed Discipleship and paused, intrigued by his invitation for people of faith to "re-inhabit" that corner of creation in which they reside. We weren’t far from the river, the visual representation of our local watershed. After the talk, a sizeable group decided to wander slowly down toward the river.

I’m not sure who, but someone began to sing, quietly at first, “As I went down to the river to pray...” an African-American spiritual and traditional American folk song (made popular by this beautiful version by Allison Krause). More voices joined the song.

As I went down to the river to pray

Studying about that good old way

And who shall wear the starry crown

O Lord, show me the way!

Singing in the river at the Wildgoose Festival

Singing in the river at the Wildgoose Festival

Some stood in the water, nimbly finding their balance despite the rocky bottom and the heavy current. Others stood on the shore. My cold toes cried out in protest as I wedged my feet between two large stones, the river making itself known from about my knees down. I began to sing along.

O sisters let's go down,

Let's go down, come on down,

Come on sisters let's go down,

Down to the river to pray.

 

Some drummed on the waters. I thought about how in the Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak went down to a river to bathe and meditate and then disappeared. After three days he emerged from the water with a message of equality and love for God. I lifted up cupped hands full of crystal coolness and let it cascade back to the river through thankful fingers.

O brothers let's go down,

Let's go down, come on down,

Come on brothers let's go down,

Down to the river to pray.

Many participated, some observed. I looked around and saw diverse perspectives gathered at the waters: Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, atheist, and more. I thought about the wudu (ablution or ritual washing) my Muslim friends perform before each of their five daily prayers. I reflected on the waters that are used in so many faith traditions to cleanse sin, to bless children, to purify the dead. We continued to modify the verses and sing them as an ever widening invitation.

O Muslims (Christians, Hindus) let's go down,

Let's go down, come on down,

Come on Muslims let's go down,

Down to the river to pray.

River baptism in northern Argentina

River baptism in northern Argentina

Our voices grew stronger and bolder as the awkwardness of singing down at the river wore off and the joy of singing down at the river set in. I thought about the story of Jesus, and how in the Christian scripture he went down to a river to be baptized and was filled with the spirit of God as he emerged from the waters. I remembered the baptisms I watched in northern Argentina this spring—the tireless way the locals moved large stones to create a temporary slack pool in an otherwise fast-flowing river. I pondered the simplicity of the location and the depth of its meaning.

O mothers (fathers, children) let's go down,

Let's go down, come on down,

Come on mothers let's go down,

Down to the river to pray.

Portage at Kletzsch Park Falls, Glendale, WI

Portage at Kletzsch Park Falls, Glendale, WI

I thought about how, for some, the river itself is sacred. For others, the sacredness is in the encounter with the Divine. For many, experiencing the joy of the river is life-giving and refreshing without any overt religious meaning. I contemplated how, when I paddle the Milwaukee River in my warbler-yellow kayak, my heart often beats out a prayer, a song, a word of gratitude for the beauty around me. I considered how the headwaters of the Milwaukee River flow past the farm in Campbellsport where the vegetables for my CSA grow, how it runs through the park where my husband and I identify birds during their spring migration, and how it empties into majestic Lake Michigan in my city.

O Milwaukee let's go down,

Let's go down, come on down,

Come on Milwaukee let's go down,

Down to the river to pray.

Kirsten Shead just below Estabrook Falls, Milwaukee, WI

Kirsten Shead just below Estabrook Falls, Milwaukee, WI

A voice dropped out, then another, and as with all profound experiences, our spontaneous song at the river came to an end. People mingled and chatted, wet feet were dried and our makeshift choir moved on to other conversations, other teachings, other prayers.

The song reverberated in me the remainder of the weekend. It does so yet today. There are so many beautiful places: rocky mountaintops, deep forests, and wide-open prairies. But that weekend we went down to the river, and that was the right place. To swim, to rest, to think—yes.  But something incredibly unifying happened when we went down to the river to pray.

Where is your river? What is your prayer?

O Wisconsin let's go down,

Let's go down, come on down,

Come on Wisconsin let's go down,

Down to the river to pray.

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Kirsten Shead is the Program Director for the Interfaith Earth Network (IEN), a program of the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee.

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