Maria Jane Highway and Nick Kigeak perform a hymn on Aug. 19 at the Sacred Circle Gospel Jam.

‘Lifted on the wings of faith’ through music

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More than most Anglican gatherings, Sacred Circle is characterized by the ever-present role of music. The sheer joy and enthusiasm of participants is matched only by the frequency and variety of the songs.

Throughout each day, agenda items are bookended by musical segues led by either National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald playing guitar or by members of a particular diocese, with heartfelt hymns sung in Indigenous languages such as Cree, Ojibwe or Inuktitut along with English-language material.

If the official agenda is overflowing with music, its persistence during downtime and in the evening further illustrates the power of song in the lives and faith of participants, evoking the theme of the 2015 Sacred Circle, Lifted on the Wings of Faith: Heeding the Indigenous Call.

Wandering over to the Sacred Fire on Tuesday evening, I found youth delegates and volunteers gathered around the flame singing traditional songs to the beat of a pounding drum.

The emotion of their voices carried me away and I settled in to listen. Soon an elder joined us and took up the drum to sing a Cree song with lyrics extolling the beauty of creation.

Bringing along my own acoustic guitar, I offered my usual renditions of secular songs by the likes of Neil Young and Guns N’ Roses.

It was at that point that a quiet young man asked if he could borrow my guitar. As the hushed audience listened with rapt attention, he delivered an achingly beautiful Inuktitut rendition of a hymn called I’m Going to Sing a New Song.

His name was Nick Kigeak. Hailing from the community of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut in the diocese of the Arctic, Nick is a multi-talented musician and first started playing guitar at age eight. Now 20, he is an impressive singer and guitarist who also plays bass and drums, as I would discover at the following evening’s Gospel Jam.

For Nick, playing music offers a way to praise God that takes any burden off his shoulders.

“When I’m feeling down, I just grab my guitar and start singing and it brings up my heart,” he says.

On Wednesday afternoon, when Sacred Circle participants had some free time, I again passed by the Sacred Circle and found Toronto delegate Leigh Kern teaching traditional songs to participants.

L-R: Leigh Kern and Danielle Black sing a traditional song by the Sacred Fire as Jesse Johns provides a drumbeat.
L-R: Leigh Kern and Danielle Black sing a traditional song by the Sacred Fire as Jesse Johns provides a drumbeat.

One song was The Women’s Warrior Song, which Leigh had first learned at an annual march for missing and murdered Indigenous women that takes place every Valentine’s Day in Toronto.

Calgary participant Danielle Black, 20, harmonized with Leigh and experimented with singing lead as I joined in.

“I’ve been asking her to teach me so that I can sing it whenever I feel like I need encouragement, or if I feel like I need some kind of strength in a sense,” Danielle said.

“I think it’s just really powerful and it really speaks to me. I’m really excited about the opportunity to just learn more about my people and my culture and our songs, because they’re beautiful.”

Along with Indigenous music from Canada, I learned a traditional Maori form of song from the Rev. Canon Robert Kereopa, who had travelled all the way from his native New Zealand to attend Sacred Circle.

Canon Kereopa taught me a fire stick song, in which two people sit across from each other tapping two sticks to create a rhythm, then toss one stick diagonally across to each other while catching the stick thrown by the other person without missing a beat. Despite its daunting appearance, I quickly picked up the technique. The key to success is trusting in both the other person and one’s own ability.

That evening, I finally took part in the nightly Gospel Jam. One after the other, Sacred Circle participants took the stage to sing some of their favourite hymns. Nick played guitar to accompany them, while I took up the bass (also performing solo renditions of Peace In The Valley and The Man Comes Around).

One of the first participants onstage was Maria Jane Highway, a former member of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, who sang her late husband’s favourite hymn in Cree on the day after the anniversary of his passing.

“I used to do a lot of singing … I kind of find it difficult to do that,” Maria said. “But that hymn … gives me encouragement, because he always found strength in it [to] learn how to keep going.”

At the end of the Gospel Jam, Bishop Mark once more took the stage and led the musicians and singers onstage in a rousing electric jam of This Little Light of Mine, prompting the audience to dance around the auditorium clapping their hands. Playing bass and singing backup vocals, this jam was hands-down the most fun, fun, fun I have ever had at a church musical performance.

It all boded well for the following night’s special musical event—“Sacred Circle’s Got Talent!” Thursday evening could not arrive fast enough.

View footage from the Tuesday night Gospel Jam.


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