Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Way Over Yonder—A Personal Reflection

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15.19)

Bishop Walter Hawkins

May 18, 1949 – July 11, 2010


Last weekend started one way and ended another. Both events jettisoned me back to my teens. On Friday night, Walt and I attended Carole King and James Taylor’s “Troubadour Reunion” concert. On Sunday evening, I opened my Facebook page to see a link posted by my good friend, Calvin Bernard Rhone. It took me to a Washington Post article: Walter Hawkins dead: award-winning gospel singer was 61. Since the early 70's, if anyone asked, “Who are your greatest musical influences?” without a second’s thought, I’d reply, “Carole King and Walter Hawkins.” As a burgeoning church musician, both drew me with their keyboard and songwriting genius. I spent hours listening to their breakthrough albums, Carole’s Tapestry (1971) and Walter’s Love Alive (1975, recorded with the choir of the church he founded, Love Center), followed by countless hours at the piano, trying to replicate their sound.

With music playing such a forceful role in my life and my faith, their influence exceeded its impact on my tastes and musicianship, however. Their lyrics shared many similarities that moved me profoundly. Admittedly, Carole’s songs were secular and often directed to friends and lovers, while Walter’s spoke of or to God. Yet it’s irrefutable both came from comparable places in their hearts. For example, Carole sang:

Way over yonder is a place that I know

Where I can find shelter from the hunger and cold

And the sweet-tasting good life is so easily found

Way over yonder, that's where I'm bound

Walter’s choir sang:

If you want to know where I'm going

Where I'm going soon

If anybody asks you where I'm going

Where I'm going soon

I'm going up yonder to be with my Lord

Carole sang:

Winter, spring, summer, or fall

All you have to do is call

And I'll be there

You've got a friend

And, on Love Alive II (1978), Walter’s choir sang:

He will never forsake you

Even though He knows everything

There is to know about you

He's that kind of Friend

These were potent messages of hope for a teenager struggling to reconcile his faith and sexual orientation. Knitted together, Carole’s compassion and Walter’s confidence became the shelter in my storms—the place where I could steal away to hear angels sing hope and acceptance. It was where I heard Walter’s music say:

God has not promised me sunshine

That's not the way it's going to be

But a little rain mixed with God's sunshine

A little pain helps me appreciate the good times

Be grateful, and it will be all right

While Carole told me:

You've got to get up every morning

And show the world all the love in your heart

Then people will treat you better

You're gonna find, yes you will

That you're beautiful as you feel

The Far Shore

So I wept with joy on Friday, as Carole performed her life-giving songs, and again Sunday, on learning Walter was gone—up yonder, way over yonder. Yet in my tears, sorrow would not come. What I felt was no less than insurmountable joy. In song after song, sermon after sermon, he insisted he was bound way over yonder. I couldn’t have been happier for him. And in my happiness, I realized the depth of his impact on me. All along, he’d been my living example of 1 Corinthians 15.19: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” I understood why I felt no alarm when I heard he was battling pancreatic cancer. I knew hope for him surpassed healing and longevity. He’d lived his life looking to the far shore.

Walter Hawkins taught me—and hundreds of thousands he graced with his music—to live in hope. Through him we grasped there’s no such thing as hopelessness when we place total faith in Christ’s word: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14.1-3) Walter compelled us always to remember we’re going up yonder. Setting our sights on the far shore keeps life’s trials in perspective. Here’s how Carole framed it:

I know when I get there the first thing I'll see

Is the sun shining golden, shining right down on me

And trouble's gonna lose me, worry leave me behind

And I'll stand up proudly, in true peace of mind

When the Battle’s Over

While playing Walter’s records as a kid, I never imagined I'd personally know him. I lived in Chicago. He was in Oakland. He was world-famous. I was nobody. I moved to Los Angeles after college and a series of coincidences landed me in the heart of L.A.’s gospel community. A good friend was recording his choir’s first major album, which Walter offered to produce. We’d briefly met a few times in passing, mostly when I visited his church in Oakland. When he came to L.A. to record my friend’s album, I somehow ended up driving him around town. He talked excitedly about his upcoming project, Love Alive III, and when we happened to pass my church, West Angeles, he asked to stop so he could say hello to my pastor.

After he and Bishop Blake visited, Walter said, “Let’s go to the sanctuary. I want to play some of the new album for you.” I can’t describe the emotions rushing over me as I sat beside him, watching his hands glide over the keys, listening to songs the general public had yet to hear. I wanted to explain what this moment meant to me, yet I knew I wouldn’t do it justice. So I sat in silent awe. We’d been there a while when Walter said, “One more, then we need to go. You’re really going to like this one.” He sailed into a classic Walter Hawkins toe-tapper, “When the Battle is Over.” Here’s the second verse:

With tears streaming down, when there's no one around

And you feel like all hope is gone

Don't despair, God is right there

When the battle's over, when the battle's over

We're going home.

Walter’s passing compels me to encourage all of us to live in the bright hope of God’s promises. We will cry sometimes. At times, family and friends we look to won’t be there. We’ll feel like hope is lost. But we must never forget the hope we possess will ultimately triumph. We must always keep the far shore in sight. Way over yonder—that’s where we’re bound.

When the battle’s over, we’re going home.

"One of these mornings, it won’t be long, you’re gonna look for me and I’ll be gone on home!” Bishop Walter Hawkins sings, “When the Battle is Over.” (Choir conducted by his brother, Edwin Hawkins.)


genevieve said...

I love Walter Hawkins' music. It was very positive and help me to focus on things above.

I aslo had the tapestry album which was very good.

kkryno said...

Wow! The size of the chior is matched only by the sheer power of Walter's awesome voice. :)

I can see why he was such an inspiration for you, and many others.

Love, Vikki.

Tim said...

Genevieve, there's no telling how many lives have been shaped by his music. I think he (and Edwin) single-handedly turned gospel's message around from "I'm saved" emphasis to its present "I live" flavor. Because, even though Walter dipped frequently into the old-school phraseology--as he does in this video--he set in a triumphant tone that made it relevant to the moment in which we live. He was the titan among titans and there will never be another like him.

Vikki, I've tried to find out when and where this video was shot and can't. It looks very much like a mass choir concert made of up of singers from across the nation--probably at one of the annual Music & Arts Seminars his brother Edwin started over 20 years ago.

If you're interested, you can get the original recording on iTunes. Walter introduced it on "Love Alive III." And there's a passing irony I didn't think about while writing the post. At the original recording (which I was blessed to attend), two powerful female soloists shared the lead, a dynamo named Lawanda Scroggins and what we in gospel call a "flat-footed singer" (meaning someone who delivers the song with amazing force absent a lot of movement or gestures). Her name is Carol King.

Re Walter's voice--it always amazed me. Here, which looks to be a good 10 years after the original recording, he's singing both soloists' parts in the same key as Lawanda and Carol. His vocal range and power were as phenomenal as his preaching and songwriting.

(P.S. If you or others are interested in hearing more of his stuff, let me know and I'll give you a "best of" list.)

Blessings and much love to both of you,

www.todaysgaychristian.org said...

This comment is for Tim I read your testimony and I felt touched. I have been in the same boat as you, so I started a website ministry to help our fellow gay Christians. I would love to have your help and support, feel free to contact me. cobylshepard@gmail.com

Tim said...

Coby, it's so nice to hear from you--and thanks for the kind words. I'm eager to do anything I can to help our brothers and sisters. I'll write you soon and see what we can do to help.

Blessings--and welcome to Straight-Friendly!

TomCat said...

Tim, I was not familiar with him. It appears that was my loss.

Tim said...

Tom, obviously my admiration is wound up in my personal feelings as well. But his popularity worldwide across all cultures and audiences speaks for itself. Thankfully, he's left us an enormous legacy, and I encourage anyone who doesn't know his music to dig into a bit. It covers the whole spectrum of style and meaning.

Blessings, my friend,

kkryno said...

I'm all for the list, when you get the chance! ;)

Love, Vik.

Tim said...

Vik, I sat down to bang out my list and opened iTunes to help me remember not to miss anything and voilà, somebody's beat me to it.

There's a collection that I don't think I could improve on called "The Very Best of Walter Hawkins and the Hawkins Family." ($11.99). It's got 26 songs that cover most of his career. It's a superb cross-section that goes from the more mellow love ballads to God to some fierce, fierce high-energy gospel.

Some of the songs you'll listen to once or twice--not because you don't like them, but because you'll love others so much you'll race to get to them. (Warning: They can be highly addictive.) And if you're like me, the ones you skipped over will draw you back to them when you need to hear them, and the cycle begins all over again.

if you get it, let me know how you like it!

Big smiles and hugs,

PS: FYI, most of the soloists you'll hear are Hawkins family members: Walter's ex-wife, Tramaine, his brother, Edwin, sisters Lynette and Feddie, and his cousin, Shirley Miller. Shirley is the life partner of Yvette Flunder, who was once Walter's associate pastor, sang like crazy on his Love Alive III - V albums, and is the founding pastor of San Francisco's Refuge of Hope, a model "radically inclusive" congregation. Yvette has become the voice of gay Christians in many prominent circles.

This is a family that loves God, one another, and everyone they meet. You hear it in every note.