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Transforming people through music

Nashville music ministry brings new energy to Unitarian Universalist worship.
By Donald E. Skinner
Fall 2005 8.15.05

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The Rev. Jason Shelton

The Rev. Jason Shelton singles out a fellow musician after a performance at the 2005 General Assembly. (Photo by Nancy Pierce) (Nancy Pierce)

He’s helped create many such moments in his seven years as director of music at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee. And he’s created some of those moments for the rest of us as well.

At the 2005 General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, he codirected the GA choir. At the 2004 General Assembly in Long Beach, California, he directed music for the Sunday worship service. And at the 2000 General Assembly in Nashville he and UU composer-musician Jim Scott organized a stunning production of the Paul Winter Consort’s Missa Gaia (“Earth Mass”). In the past year Shelton’s song “Standing on the Side of Love” has become an anthem for marriage equality.

Shelton has composed and arranged dozens of pieces for church settings. Many are on his 2004 compact disc, The Fire of Commitment. Shelton conducts workshops on the role of music in ministry and is a strong advocate for UU music directors. He also served on the task force that developed Singing the Journey, the new hymnal supplement introduced at GA this year.

This is not Shelton’s original path. Now 33, he was raised Roman Catholic. He earned a bachelor’s degree in classics at a Catholic seminary in Indiana, then spent three years as a Franciscan brother in Chicago. But his spiritual journey, as he puts it, took him beyond the theological and institutional limits of the Catholic Church. So in 1998 he moved home to Nashville.

A friend invited him to First UU that spring. When he met with the minister to talk about joining the church, he learned that the congregation’s music director had just resigned. Shelton was hired that summer. He graduated in 2003 from Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville and was ordained in May 2004. He is the first UU music director to receive fellowship as a UU minister.

“I’m doing what I absolutely love to do,” Shelton said. “Most of the time it’s just about as much fun as I can imagine having.” He sees his ministry as using music to create dynamic worship services. His training in trumpet and jazz helps. So does being in music-rich Nashville—many professional musicians are First UU members.

Shelton’s new song, “Standing on the Side of Love,” was born at UUA headquarters in Boston. Shelton was attending a meeting about Singing the Journey in UUA president William G. Sinkford’s office. Word came that President Bush had just called for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and the meeting was interrupted so that Sinkford could draft an immediate response. “One of the things he said was, ‘We stand on the side of love,’” Shelton says. “It just struck me. As he talked, I started writing down words. I literally heard the song in my head. I went home, and my choir did it that Sunday, and it was sung at a rally at the Massachusetts State House, and congregations in California used it for a Standing on the Side of Love Sunday in February. It’s just taken off from there.”

Finding music for UU churches can be challenging, Shelton says. “The vast majority of the standard choral repertoire doesn’t play well with our theology. Occasionally you can spin a traditional piece so it fits, but otherwise you’ll send people flying out the door. On the other hand, there’s a lot of freedom to choose from various kinds of music.”

Through his music and in occasional sermons, Shelton encourages UUs to go deeper with their faith. “We are too inclined to use the Constitution to support our public stands rather than citing our rich theological heritage, from the Buddha and Jesus to Theodore Parker and James Reeb, which would give us credence as a religious people,” he said in a sermon at the First Unitarian Univeralist Church of San Diego earlier this year. “Many of our fellow religionists think of us as little more than the ACLU with a choir. When we neglect the sources of our faith and claim only our individual conscience as our guide without talking about what informs our conscience, we give up the authority that gives us theological credibility. We have a deep and abiding faith. When we embrace it we’ve got something to sing about.”

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