Let’s hear the song “Khumbaya,” but not the song as you might know it from Guides and Scouts and campfire singing. In fact, I’ll suggest that it can be a model of liturgical prayer. The familiar campfire song, in the experience of many people, has been exploited to arouse shallow-rooted feelings of happiness and harmony. As a consequence, “kumbaya” is a synonym for “the warm fuzzies”: unrealistic or cheaply-generated good feelings.
In comparison to songs like “Imagine” and “We are the world,” which are, arguably, intrinsically patronising or emotionally manipulative, the common campfire version of “Kumbaya” suffers only from being reminiscent of a schoolyard chant in its repetitive words and sing-song tune. Its taint comes only from the practice of using the song to induce an evanescent feel-good mood. But the Soweto Gospel Choir’s version of “Khumbaya” is distinct enough to allow us to shake off old associations with the campfire rendition and hear the words as a simple invocation and expression of trust. The refrain “khumbaya” throughout is dialect for “come by here,” i.e. “be with us”:
Somebody’s crying Lord. Khumbaya
Somebody’s praying Lord Khumbaya
Oh Lord, hear my prayer Khumbaya
As I lift my voice and say Khumbaya
I need you Lord today Khumbaya
I need you right away Khumbaya
Somebody’s in despair Khumbaya
Somebody feels like no one cares Khumbaya
I know you make a way Khumbaya
Yes! Lord you make a way Khumbaya
When I listen to this version in particular it reminds me that liturgy means the work of the people, that is, the church’s public prayer, and that I don’t need to be in a given situation in order to join in making the public prayer for those who are experiencing it. I don’t even need to know them personally – I just need to know that “somebody’s in despair” as we lift our voices to carry that prayer together.