Busted Halo

Monica Rozenfeld moves to Brooklyn with two roommates — a Catholic and an observant Jew — and they each seek understanding of what it means to be religious.

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November 22nd, 2010

How much pain does it take?


How much pain does it take to feel G-d? The people of Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, worry about their kids and gangs, about drugs and homicide. They have the projects and they have their churches. But mostly, they have G-d.

The residents in this neighborhood hold more collective faith than any one community. You can just feel it. Every night, the churches host something for the community – anything – from youth programs to keep kids off the streets, to housing and foreclosure help to free HIV testing.


The residents here speak in gospel, and laugh with you like you are their good friend. I am a white, Jewish girl who spends a lot of time in this neighborhood on assignment as a writer. It blows my mind how much love the people have for others and how much G-d they have in their hearts.

A New York Times article this Saturday titled “A Long Road From ‘Come By Here’ to ‘Kumbaya’” is about the song we all know for camp fires and strum guitars, but once was and still is a song about a Black people’s despair. The song lyrics call on heaven to help in a time of pain, “Come by here, my Lord.” This song, deeply rooted in Black Christianity, was transformed into a pop-folk-sing-along “Kumbaya,” and now, the article points out, has become a “snarky shorthand for ridiculing a certain kind of idealism.”

So how did we go from a song about pleading to G-d to help us through troubled times to making fun of the desire for peace? Do we no longer feel that kind of pain that brings us to our knees, with a hesitation to cry out to G-d? Are people like the residents of Bedford Stuyvesant the only ones, who through their prayers and pain, understand the need for G-d as a constant in their lives? Or have we all become jaded to the heartache that goes on in this world? Is what we see in the news and in our lives simply another event?

I know I have become jaded. As a writer, the words I hear more than anything now are: “This story has been done before,” or “Why does this matter?” Well, yes, this story may have been done many times before, but it wasn’t done to him, or her or me. And that’s who it matters to. But maybe we’ve heard enough – another person killed, one more child abused – that we just say Kumbaya instead of Come by Here.

When I wrote a review on the documentary Reporter, a film with Journalist Nicolas Kristof, I started by asking the question: How many people today google “genocide,” “holocaust” or “rape camp?”

Kristof was criticized when he wrote more than 60 columns on the African genocides. Where some people saw it as repetitive, one journalist in the film responded as such:

“If it’s happening every day, it should be written about every day. Imagine, during the Holocaust, saying ‘Oh, there was 20 stories written about the extermination of the Jews. It’s redundant.’”

The people in Bedford Stuyvesant feel pain every day. They struggle. They protect. And they cry. To them, their prayers to G-d and their stories on the streets never become redundant. They still sing “Come By Here, my Lord.” What will it take for the rest of us to do the same?

The Author : Monica Rozenfeld

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  • Farrah Fidler

    I had no idea the origin of Kumbaya. We do need to remind ourselves of what is going on locally and globally, no matter how repetitive. We need these constant reminders sometimes to know that there’s suffering out there and if we’re human we need to feel that.

  • Annie Reuter

    I love this post! I learned so much — had no idea about “Kumbaya” or Kristof’s determination to repeatedly write about the African genocides in hopes to create more awareness and put an end to it.

    Powerful quote and so true:

    “If it’s happening every day, it should be written about every day,” said one journalist in Reporter. “Imagine, during the Holocaust, saying ‘Oh, there was 20 stories written about the extermination of the Jews. It’s redundant.’”

    Keep on pitching those articles that you’re passionate about. Can’t wait to read more!

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