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Interview: New podcast on Fr Clarence Rivers—the father of Black Catholic liturgy

Cincinnati's first Black priest, who also spearheaded the liturgical side of the Black Catholic Movement, is the subject of a podcast launched over the summer.

Inscribed in the dedication page of “Lead Me, Guide Me”, the world’s first-ever Black Catholic hymnal, is the name of one Fr Clarence Rivers, the world’s first-ever Black Catholic liturgist in the Black patrimony.

A new podcast launched in August, “Meet Father Rivers”, aims to uncover and explore his life in the form of an open-ended conversation with those who knew and were influenced by him. I spoke with the creators, Emily Strand and Eric T. Styles, on all things Fr Rivers and the dialogue did not disappoint.

(Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Nate Tinner-Wiliams: Thank you both for, for meeting with me. I very much appreciate it. I am so extremely excited about this podcast. I love Black Catholicism, and I love Fr Rivers because he was integral to the inculturation of Black Catholicism. And nobody else is talking about him right now.

I don't think I've ever spoken to someone who knew him personally, so could you tell me more about this idea, you know, ‘Let's do a podcast about Fr Rivers.’

Emily Strand: Um, yeah, if I can start. So, gosh...

Eric T. Styles: Your background with Fr Rivers is the first episode, right? So there's that.

Strand: Yeah, exactly. So, I had this encounter that was like, really sort of fleeting, to be honest.

NTW: I've always wondered what he was like closer to his death. Because I've read a lot about when he was very active, but not after his prime.

Strand: Yeah, yeah. So far, we're treating that in every episode, because that's when I knew him. And it was very different from, you know, what I'd heard.

My mom likes to call me after I release episodes and tell me her reaction to them. Yeah. And I'm starting to think that these phone calls need to be their own podcast. Because, well, she's hilarious. She was like, ‘Now Dr. Jessie [Thomas] said something in the last episode that I didn't like.’ and I was like ‘OK, what is that?’

And she was like, ‘Well she said Fr Rivers had a falling out with the Church.’ And I was like ‘Um... Well, I'm sorry you don't like that.’ She said: ‘Everything about Fr Rivers makes me happy, but that doesn't make me happy.’

She's getting into the heart of the issue, you know what I mean?  She's got a window into it and she's putting her finger on it, but she's just doing it in her own little way. So yeah, I definitely want to talk more [in the podcast] about why he was so isolated at the end of his life—or was he?

NTW: What year did he pass?

Styles: 2004. But I don't know when all that started and I don't know what happened. And I don't know if I'm ever going to get to the bottom of it, because it could involve, like, some plan to publish his music that went awry.

NTW: Is that something that never happened?

Strand: Correct.

We met several times, we talked on the phone but then it was snuffed out like that, you know? I defended my master's thesis on, I want to say it was on a Friday, and then I get a call. And I think it was that Monday morning afterward from Fr Paul Marshall, SM, of dear departed memory, saying that Rivers was dead. I mean, I had it on my planner that week to call him and tell him how the thesis defense went, you know?

And I was just so angry and upset and, you know, empty about this because I could no longer pursue this. I think that feeling followed me for the next 10 years or so. And then the more I got into podcasting, the more I started thinking ‘Gosh, he would make a great subject for a podcast.’ And also, like, my notes from talking to him are just a jumble of random scribbles on legal pad, you know, and I have a letter from him that's not preserved properly, you know. I didn't do this right, and I feel like I want to do this right.

It was like, yeah, that's gonna be a lot of time and a lot of effort and I gotta make sure the timing is right. And then George Floyd died and we were all watching.

Styles: And stuck in our homes.

Strand: Yeah, exactly. And there were a lot of people out there, and I'm definitely among them, who wanted to do something to try to center Black voices and to tell Black stories and to give this perspective that is so needed right here. And then it all just kind of came together. And then I started more actively pursuing it. Which led me to Eric.

Styles: So I knew him longer, but it didn't feel any less sudden and short. I didn't feel any less short-changed, you know? I knew that there was a lot that I was losing because he had passed away. I talked to him the day that he died, it was on the feast of Christ the King. He died on Sunday.

I found it fitting that he died on the feast of Christ the King. The archbishop once asked him whether he did anything, you know, simply. He said ‘Yes, like going to the grocery store.’ But when it comes to the kingdom of God, he felt nothing should be simple.

Strand: It’s all extra.

Styles: Yes. So I met him in around 1999. I was in the process of becoming Catholic through RCIA. And in the podcast, I'll tell the story of being in the cathedral and seeing Fr Rivers. So stay tuned for that; we don’t wanna give everything away.

But he was in Cincinnati while I was going to college there. And I got the chance to meet him and really had to shift, very quickly—very quickly—what I thought a priest should be. How I thought a priest should be. I was just really fascinated by him.

He was a different person, an interesting person, seemingly very comfortable living in multiple worlds. I was attracted to that because I could see myself stepping into multiple worlds that overlap. The classic question: can one be, you know, authentically Black and truly Catholic? That's the language of the Black Catholic community. And so, like him and some others, I made a decision that the only answer is ‘Yes’. That Catholic can't be Catholic if I can't be Catholic.

And we talk about his personality, right? But also, there were layers of things going on with him. There was some sadness there. He was maybe a bit tossed aside as the Black Catholic community moved quickly into gospel and kind of passed over his music in some ways—which was very different from gospel but also connected.

Yeah, he brought something special and he opened up space for people, and I think we missed how he opened that space up and we’re just living in that space now. So I hope that the podcast helps to start to build context. For us to understand.

NTW: So what is it that Fr Rivers' story has to say to the Church right now or to the world right now?

Strand: Well, the God’s-honest answer is that I'm not 100% sure. I've got like maybe five episodes in my head right now and I've already released three of them and then after that, it gets real fuzzy. But I know that there's a lot of really interesting issues that come up about liturgy and how it should be, how it is meant to be, and how it can be in keeping with the continuity of our whole tradition. Our whole tradition, not just the last 500 years of it, and how it can be life-giving to people, something that people want to go to and not go just out of obligation.

I think about the fact that when he first got started, [Fr Rivers] was sent a letter from the archdiocese because he had introduced the Missa Luba and the kids were singing it and the parish was singing it and it had drumming. And so all of a sudden, here comes this letter from the archbishop saying, ‘Only sacred instruments are to be used in Mass.’

It doesn't age well, you know?

Styles: I want to jump in on what you said before. People used to believe that if they didn’t go to church, they were going to go to Hell. They don't think that way anymore about church, and so people have to have a reason beyond that to go to church and his explanation is they have to enjoy it. It has to be meaningful to them. They have to want to be there. He said the sacrament of Confirmation should be so significant that people are itching to get itadults, not 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds, but adults. Itching to be fully initiated into the life of the Church.

This had an impact in my own life, and I know this comes from Clarence Rivers: the priest who confirmed me into full communion, he took the glass cap of the vessel that the chrism was in and poured it from the vessel. And it was, you know, maybe a couple ounces. And he poured it on the top of my head, drenching me. And for months, I could smell chrism. That I know came from Rivers, that liturgy and sacramentality ought to breathe in that kind of way. And I know he added more perfume to the chrism. That’s the kind of thing he would do.

I would love to get a whole set or even just to read a whole set of the “Freeing the Spirit”—

NTW: The journal?

Styles: Yes. What Rivers and his colleagues were doing in that magazine would be extraordinarily innovative and maybe even scandalous today. And that's what makes me think it's relevant.

He and others like him were trying to think through what it means to be religious, which he would say is to be a real human. He wouldn't say that's somehow separate. He would talk about the spiritual life as grounding not, you know, flighty. And say that we all have spirits, we all have a spiritual life and he's interested in that.

It’s relevant, even moreso, in a particular way, for those of us who are Black and Catholic. Like how are we gonna keep this thing going? If we can. As it gets old. Like, the people are old. Who's the next generation? Who are the Black Catholic leaders who are not old yet, who might be able to pass on something.

What's happening to our community is not anything different from what’s happening to the larger community. And yet, at the same time, there is a hope, a belief Clarence Rivers had that we have something special to give to the Catholic Church, right? He really believed that, and I think that he was right. We have a balm for the Catholic Church.

Sr Mary McGann, RCSJ’s book, “A Precious Fountain”, deals with this and uses his framework.

NTW: I’ve read most of that book.

Styles: He was so proud of that, because he said she had done something that he had not done, which was to look at his work, pull back, and outline a theoretical framework.

I think he has something really to offer to our understanding of liturgy and religion.

NTW: To say the least. So, what are we missing about the impact he's had on the church? Also, where is this podcast going? Is it pointing towards something else?

Strand: As to the first question, I am hot on this. What he told me is that in 1964, when he sang “God Is Love” at the National Liturgical Conference in St Louis, you know, everybody went nuts and that he spent the rest of the conference beating people off with a stick.

And he said there was a moment when somebody ran up to him and was really struck by the fact that Rivers had used a folk idiom, you know—Black sacred song—and he said, ‘So do you think it's okay for other people to use other folk idioms as well?’ And Rivers was like, ‘I don't see why not.’ He was never gonna be one to say ‘You can't do that,’ you know.

Well, then, to me, it looks like all of the White people ran off and grabbed all their folk idioms—borrowing heavily, some of them, as time went on, from Black folk idioms—and then shoved them into a bunch of music that then flooded the market for Catholic liturgical music for the next 40 years, with little reference to Clarence. A few people here and there you'll hear talk about Clarence Rivers and his influence on them. Ken Canedo is one.

But so many people just had so much success following after what he did first, and what we don't understand is who opened the gates, just to give some acknowledgment to that and—especially for people who are serving as music ministers in parishes, those who are sort of serving up a sanitized, easier-to-play version of gospel music—should maybe start looking at the roots of that and where that actually came from and thus broaden their own repertoire. Because music ministers are gatekeepers, you know.

Styles: Yeah, I absolutely agree with you, Emily. The piece that I would add would be: if you're going to do it, do it really well. [Rivers] was interested in giving people an experience of what the “really well” looked like, so that they would crave it.

I think “God Is Love” stands up. If you brought Rawn Harbor in and you had a great vocalist, you could sing that song. It would feel so right to sing that song during Communion because it's good. Because it's scriptural, right? The melodies are meaty. And they're good poetry.

Black Catholics are living in a world that Rivers opened up for us, and other people like him. But certainly he was the stalwart. He was the one most clearly articulating a vision for Black Catholic worship. People were doing things here and there, but he had a full-on perspective that most other people just didn't have. And he embodies that.

When I first saw him in a liturgy, it was like, ‘Oh, if he can be a Catholic, then I can be.’

Strand: And I think it's equally true that he and others helped create a world that White Catholics are also living in but without reference to him, but I agree. I think his work more fundamentally affects the Black Catholic experience, but it doesn't mean that's the only people he meant it for.

Styles: And most of his early success was in the White community. And Protestants, in the late 60s and 70s. College students. They were the ones calling. He writes about that. I think it's a real sad reality that his music is unavailable, basically, and out of print and not well-recorded. Except for, like, a couple of things you can find on YouTube.

We’re missing that larger picture of where we came from and how we got here, which would hopefully provide us with an answer to the question, “Where are we going?”

Strand: I would love to go to a place where his music can be—particularly his music, his thought as well, but particularly his music—can be studied, performed, and recorded for a modern audience.

Styles: There's a piece of music out there that is by its very nature scandalous. We sang it in Cincinnati. It’s a Eucharistic Prayer. It’s called the “Anaphora of the Lion and the Lamb”. It's not sung anywhere anymore.

NTW: So it's scandalous because it's not one of the approved Eucharistic Prayers?

Styles: Yes. And it's not, like, “Black”—whatever that means, right? But it is extraordinary. His other Eucharistic Prayer, for the 1976 Eucharistic Congress, follows the Roman form exactly, it just uses different words. Words that are, you know, poetry out of the Black idiom. If you have or have access to his books, it's there. You can read it. That's in “The Spirit In Worship”.

But he also wrote a Eucharistic Prayer that's different from that, which has this refrain:

Lion of Judah
O, worthy Lamb

It’s very Jewish, right? Yeah, and then the words. Pure poetry. I talked to him about it, he was like, ‘Yeah, I know it's not gonna get played a lot, but I did it. You can’t undo that I did it. Someone will see 100 years from now. It's there.’

And I wish that we could actually help make that real, so that it's in the library somewhere with a recording and you could actually go to it and say ‘There it is.’

Strand: And if and if this podcasts, if this podcast leads to any such activity, I would probably die the next day. That's a big dream of mine, but there's also a big part of me that knows I just need to get this down on tape.

All this stuff about Fr Rivers, from the notes that I took on our phone conversations to all these conversations, some of which I've had with Eric already. But you know, I just have to put this down somewhere. I want people to listen to it, I really do, but I also needed to just be out there, you know what I mean?

Styles: [reading Rivers’ aforementioned anaphora]:

The glory of the divine saving presence,
the light dispelling darkness,
the Word made flesh has pitched his tent among us
and we have seen the glory of the Lord.
Lion of Judah, Hosanna

The priest sings that, and the congregation sings this:

And he had lived not for himself alone
and did not shrink from living even in the face of death.
Lion of Judah, Hosanna.
O worthy Lamb, Eleison.
On the night before he died...

And then he does the Words of Institution.

He blessed and passed the cup...

And then the text moves, which I find the most interesting, from the third person to the first person:

I, Jesus, am the alpha and Omega.
I, Jesus, am the beginning and the end.
I am the royal heir of David,
the morning star shining bright.
I am the living, flowing, water.
Let all who thirst for life freely drink.
I am the tree of life, freely take.
As I have done for you, so you should share the bread and wine of life,
freely giving, not withholding.
I am the Lion, courage-driven.
I am the Lamb, giving all.
I am the Lion, courage-driven
I am the Lamb, giving all.
As I have done for you, so you should share the bread and wine of life,
freely giving, not withholding.

And then back to the doxology at the end:

Worthy, the Lion
Worthy, the Lamb
to receive power and strength,
riches and wisdom
honor and glory and praise.
Glory to God, alleluia.

To me, this is almost like the summation of his work. The high point—

NTW: Was this towards the end of his career?

Styles: Yeah, it was. He had written it and it was being used. 1992 is when it was copyrighted. It was being used, quietly, in Black parishes.

This is, in many ways, pulling all together all those pieces of his.

NTW: So it's safe to say, then, that his actual liturgical works have yet to be fully unearthed and implemented today?

Strand: Or even fully explored. But now, as historical pieces, I really think they deserve more attention.

NTW: Wow. There's a lot here.

Strand: So now you can see why I don't have a plan for my podcast. I just don't know where this is going to lead, and I want to stay open to where it naturally leads rather than pushing it in a direction, you know what I mean?

Styles: It’s just too important, and it's important that we do this before we die, so that it's out there and it's on the record. But there’s a lot of people who knew him, who experienced him, through the Black Catholic community, through the Institute for Black Catholic Studies. He spent one summer at IBCS, and he ruffled feathers while he was there.

NTW: I'm sure he did.

Styles: But it was formative for the people who went. Dr. Cecilia Moore talks about that. Her experience of him was very strong. He was a force to be reckoned with. But he was also a very dear person. He was approachable, he wasn't aloof from real human life.

Strand: I have come to recognize that part of my own sort of attraction to him as a figure has to do with me being able to because I was at a point in life where I was just kind of bumping up against the limits of that my gender gives me in this tradition. I was just kind of exploring the parameters, and for him to be so respectful and treat me like an equal… I could look into his story and I could see the story of somebody overcoming and pushing hard against those barriers that he found for himself. It inspired me to take risks and to keep pushing and to keep hoping for those barriers to break.

Styles: Also, I think there are certainly some really important things that did happen in his later years. For example, he received the Berakah Award from the North American Academy of Liturgy.

NTW: I saw that, but I had no idea what it is.

Styles: It's a high honor. Rawn was there to help prepare the ceremony. It meant a lot to [Fr Rivers]. If you look at the other people who received it, he is in good company. NAAL is the overarching Christian association on liturgy. It includes Catholics, Methodists, etc.

Their award was given to him in 2002. Sr McGann’s article in “Worship” led to him getting it. The challenge today is that we don't have so many scholars who are doing the work.

What's good about what you have done with the Messenger is we now have an ongoing, contemporary, social media-driven newspaper for popular dissemination, not academic stimulation. People who are not academics are just not going to spend the time going to the library to find obscure texts like this. And these texts are obscure.

NTW: I would say almost his entire legacy lives in academic journals and the records of academic societies. I have been so frustrated in my search for Black Catholic history, seeing how much is locked away there, in places that most people—including myself until recently—literally did not have access to. It has to come out somewhere else. Be it a podcast, be it the media, or a book. That's the only way it's going to get to the masses. And that's where we are now in 2021: getting Fr Clarence Rivers to the masses. Because he's not there yet.

Styles: Yeah. I would do it if I had the time. Who has the time? The academic has the time. That's what makes the academic an academic, setting aside time to just do the research, and then write it, and then at some point it’s on Amazon and people can just order it if they want to read it.

And the other question is: who do you pitch it to? The undergraduate or graduate level theology classroom? Or to the general population? But the people who were a part of that Black Catholic Movement have been and are dying. So when I look at the membership of the national Black associations, the Sisters’ Conference, the Clergy Caucus, etc, they are aging and they aren't coming through in great numbers.

Strand: I want to just remind you, Eric, that you had said when we first talked about this, that this series could be four episodes long. Did you mean 40?

Styles: Did I say that?

Strand: Yeah! I was thinking more like 10 and now I'm thinking of, well, I don't want to tell you what I'm thinking because it's gonna make everyone tired.

NTW: Perpetual.

Strand: No, someday it will end.

NTW: Because someday we die.

Styles: We're talking about a lot of death these days. We gotta live that liturgical cycle, right? You better be ready. I want to hear “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning” before the end of the season.

NTW: Yes, amen.

Strand: Soon and very soon.

NTW: Thanks to both of you for speaking with me today.

Be on the lookout for episode 4 of “Meet Father Rivers”, releasing on Sunday, November 21st—the Feast of Christ the King and the 17th anniversary of Rivers’ death.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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