This mini-memoir is about my song leading experiences in Searcy, Arkansas—a little town in which I’ve spent, in toto, about 4.5 years of my life. Searcy (pronounced “SUR-see”) is one of the beloved homes of colleges affiliated with my church “fellowship.” Although Searcy is just one college town, and although it is probably no more representative of Church of Christ experience than others, it is the town I know, and I figure it’s beneficial to think about where I’ve come from.
Searcy has pretty much always been a town where it’s not only safe, but quite comfortable, to be a Christ-ian. A quick glance at its daily newspaper’s website shows not only the Christian influence, but something of the place of Harding University in the community.
Aside: and what about other CofC college towns? I’ve only spent about 8-10 waking hours of my life in Abilene (ACU)–an ugly town with a more open breed of university and a somewhat more progressive church climate–and no more in Henderson, TN (FHU). Have been in Oklahoma City (OU) and Vienna, WV (OVU) a bit longer but still have no real basis for comment there. Absolutely no sense at all of Lubbock (LCU) or Kissimmee (FCC). I have a fairly decent handle on Nashville (DLU), but that city is in a class all its own, since it is Jerusalem for CofCers and spawned such relatively avant garde efforts as are found within Woodmont Hills and Brentwood and Otter Creek and Zoe. In Searcy, a true CCCCS (Church of Christ College City-State) — for me, at least — stuff including the leading of congregational singing is more analyzable, memorable … and, well … iconic.
It bears mention here that my maternal grandfather, Andy T. Ritchie Jr., was for years a well-known, much-loved-and-respected leader of worship in congregational singing. He sometimes traveled far by train and car to lead worship as others preached, and to preach himself. He was a cross between George Beverly Shea and Billy Graham — in our milieu, which is of a much smaller scale. I genuinely feel blessed to have experienced Granddaddy’s leading on several occasions — both in my home church in Delaware and in Searcy. He was known for his strong voice, his eventual blindness due to detached retinas, his expressive leading well into his 60s, and his personal, persistent communion with God. If I have one-quarter of the relationship with God that Granddaddy seems to have had, I’ll be well off.
Whatever your precise background, your connection with Church of Christ college towns, and your inclination or disinclination toward the CofC or congregational worship of times past, my hope is that a few dozen of you will find this more interesting and constructive than old “home movies.”
I. In Harding University’s Chapel Assembly
During my college years, I was privileged to lead congregational singing about once a semester in Harding University’s chapel. The first time I led there was during my freshman year. Know first that all congregational singing was sans instruments (which, incidentally, isn’t exactly the meaning of “a cappella”). No special choir was involved. Yet University choral director Uncle Bud (Dr. Kenneth Davis, Jr.) was responsible for lining up the song leaders, and he knew my strong family background in congregational singing, so he put me up there in chapel fairly early—during my first fall semester, I’m pretty sure. Although one faculty member had been ridonculously spacey in front of the chapel audience of 2,800—actually forgetting which hymnal was used in chapel and calling out song numbers from a different hymnal—I made no such mistakes and was “successful.” I remember overhearing, after I had led, that some upperclassman music folks were envious that I hadn’t made a mistake in chapel.
Big deal. No mistakes of the technical variety. I’m afraid that that’s kinda how I’m remembered as a Harding student. I was so associated with technical correctitude — perhaps extended to a perceived lack of ability to relate to the common person? — that I wasn’t elected president of a music ensemble. I understand now: no one wants to have correctness inflicted on him at every turn, and although I was respected, I wasn’t loved by the masses.
I have no memory of what specific songs I led that day in chapel, or whether I was really leading or just beating time and getting the right pitch and not fouling up the words. This memory of chapel song leading is not all that strong, I’m afraid. It was just a given — a male with musical proficiency and the spiritual desire to lead the student body and faculty could do so, about once a semester.
Coda: On Tour
A brief tag-on to the above: I remember that Uncle Bud would have opportunity on a few occasions to select a student or two to lead singing wherever the chorus found itself on Sunday mornings while we were on tour. I was honored to be one of these guys on a few occasions. Again, no specific memories, but I’m glad to have had such opportunities to lead and to observe as the chorus traveled parts of the country. This kind of experience could only have strengthened and broadened me as a person and as a leader.
To be continued …
 In the CofC, “fellowship” is the inoffensive way to say “denomination.”