Say Amen, Somebody

“Jesus Dropped the Charges” is one of my all-time favorite songs, featured in a moving and joyful documentary about gospel music called “Say Amen, Somebody.” To me, this is not just a song, it is a healing experience.

“Say Amen Somebody” was shown on PBS in the early 1980’s. My brother saw it and immediately ordered a VHS copy of it for me (remember those, anybody?) I played it over and over, and fell deeply in love with the whole thing, especially the O’Neal Twins singing “Jesus Dropped the Charges.”

This song became my antidote for shame and guilt. I’m a person with a terribly harsh inner critic and judge, often feeling guilty of something, without being sure of exactly what–kind of like Josef K. in Kafka’s The Trial. This was reinforced by my Catholic school upbringing. I remember being stunned to learn in first grade that all babies are born with a huge sin on their little souls. This sin was even illustrated on the blackboard by my first grade teacher.

First, Sister Joseph drew our “soul” on the blackboard as a Casper the Ghost-like shape. Then she added Original Sin– a chalky blob taking up 2/3 of the “soul”. She rubbed the chalk angrily, over and over, filling in the giant blob of sin. She also taught us that Baptism and Confession wiped away our sins, but I never could shake the sense that there was still something inherently wrong with me. Kind of like the shadowy image of that blob that remained all week after she erased it, until they scrubbed the boards down with soap and water over the weekend.

In my 13 years of Catholic education, the loving messages Jesus taught were almost completely obscured by the people who supposedly taught them to us, and in the way they ran their institutions.

They taught beautiful but abstract ideas of unconditional love and forgiveness but we did not receive that from them in their behavior towards us. As little children, we so often broke their many strict rules, (every day, if not every hour) and we were punished and shamed in front of the class. Add in parents who valued achievements over all else, and there I was, left with a permanent blob of guilt on my heart and soul.

Much later came my career in law, concluding with almost twenty years on the family court bench. I chose that line of work thinking I could help families resolve problems peacefully and instead very often got tangled up in bureaucratic webs. This was, after all, another institutional system of rules, based on right and wrong, guilty and not guilty. When I dared, I allowed my heart to guide the proceedings. I have never regretted those choices. I do regret times I went against my heart, thinking I had to follow rules that de-humanized others, because I was told it was my job.

I am grateful the profession of law is seeing the light (at least in some places) moving beyond harsh, black-and-white judgmental institutions, and opening up to humanistic models based on solutions, compassion and restoration.

When I first saw “Say Amen Somebody”, and heard “Jesus Dropped the Charges”, my deepest longings for some tangible evidence of love, mercy, forgiveness and unconditional acceptance going all the way way back to that moment in my first grade classroom were touched.

I laughed, too, at the picture in my head of Jesus suddenly appearing in my courtroom in a white robe, striding up the aisle to plead someone’s case, someone who is clearly guilty, just before they were hauled off to jail, or worse. How many of us have desperately prayed for a miracle when everything seemed doomed? (I admit I am the kind of person who has prayed for a Shakespearean tragedy to end happily, knowing full well it couldn’t.) In this song, all those prayers are answered.

The You Tube version of this song is wonderful, (link below) because you can see the joy and passion of the O’Neal twins, their unforgettable choir director, and the congregation. The iTunes audio-only version has clearer sound, is longer and contains a bonus question at the very beginning. I put that on repeat for more difficult times.

This song never fails to lift my spirits, keeping me from sinking into hopelessness over this life-threatening cancer diagnosis or any other problem for that matter, large or small. Even when I am skeptical. Even as I think, “it can’t work this time,” it does.

I saw a review that said this documentary can “turn an atheist into a believer.”
I don’t know about that, but this song can turn me into a singing, dancing, clapping optimist.

And that’s a miracle. (Especially the dancing part.)

Thank you, brother Mick.
Amen!
Jesus Dropped the Charges

For a bit more, the Roger Ebert Review explains why this documentary is so special.

His closing paragraph sums it up well:

“Say Amen, Somebody” is the kind of movie that isn’t made very often, because it takes an unusual combination of skills. The filmmaker has to be able to identify and find his subjects, win their confidence, follow them around, and then also find the technical skill to really capture what makes them special. Nierenberg’s achievement here is a masterpiece of research, diligence, and direction. But his work would be meaningless if the movie didn’t convey the spirit of the people in it, and SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY does that with mighty joy. This is a great experience.

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