One of the most beautiful women in America is someone you may never have heard of. By saying this, I am referring to a concept of beauty that transcends the contemporary, much too usual, sense of beauty that is shaped by outward appearance. What I have in mind here is a deeper sense of that word, one that is anchored in goodness and truth, and in a personal and vibrant faith.
Mosie Burkes reminds me of my Swedish-descended grandmother. On the face of it, that seems like a ridiculous statement. Yet, to my knowledge both women have shared the same deep faith, while having very different cultural ways of expressing that truth. For sure, there is a world of difference between Mosie, an African-American Church of Christ woman born of sharecropping parents in pre-Civil Rights rural Mississippi, and my own forbear, Lydia, who grew up in an 1890’s immigrant family in Minneapolis in a Swedish Baptist church. Yet, both women are faith-shaping for me, but in varying ways. There is a truism that can help me and others parse this: if we have grown up as persons of faith, a grandmother often has been a significant part of the picture. And, for many, Mosie Burks may be that substitute grandmother.
Paradoxically, it may be my Swedish great-grandfather who perhaps also accounts for my appreciation for Mosie Burks. He left Sweden in the 1890’s to come to America as a dissident Baptist – not only from the Anglican Communion-friendly Church of Sweden, but from his own fellow Baptists. Why? Because, as best as we can discern, his proclivity toward Pentecostal experience. After founding a Swedish language newspaper in Minneapolis, and in pursuing local ministry, he then engaged in missions to South America.
As much as my own spiritual and liturgical instincts run in an old-fashioned Anglican direction (“Let all mortal flesh keep silence…”), preferring reflective and mystical forms of worship, I am stopped in my tracks by Mosie Burks and her singing with the Mississippi Mass Choir. When I watch her sing, along with that magnificent choir, I have the sense that the spirit of my great grandfather rises up within me. Yet, I do not want to deny the universal appeal of her talent and that of the ministry of her choir. YouTube even has a comment, in French, from a self-identifying Muslim, who adores Mosie’s singing.
I think that the power of Mosie Burks’ singing with the Mississippi Mass Choir has a lot to do with her unrestrained and unselfconscious authenticity. In several of her videos we see moments where, ‘slain by the Spirit,’ Bernini’s Baroque sculpture, ‘St Theresa in Ecstasy,’ becomes transposed through a music video into contemporary Jackson, MS.
As she gives herself to her music – and this is a key point – Mosie unconsciously embodies in her voice and movement the heartfelt significance of the words she shares with us.
Wouldn’t we – self-restrained as we usually are – want to give ourselves to Jesus in such a self-revealing way? Well, as a descendent of far-northern European immigrants to America, I know my usual answer to that question! And this is why – for me – Mosie’s approach to singing the Gospel and in demonstrating her faith is so compelling. Watching her sing, with such power, finds me saying to myself, I want to go to her church!
God bless you, Mosie Burks!
Look for Mosie Burks and the Mississippi Mass Choir on YouTube. The images above are stills taken from music videos available through that medium. I especially recommend among her repertoire these: “When I Rose this Morning;” “I’m Not Tired Yet;” and “They Got the Word.” Some of her videos were recorded when she was in her 80’s!
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