A helpful woman at one of my presentations acquainted me with this Carolyn Winfrey Gillette’s 2009 book, “Songs of Grace: New Hymns for God and Neighbor”. I’m so glad she did. Carolyn Winfrey was born in Virginia in 1961 to a Methodist family where she received a love of English and word-smithing from her English professor father and writing mother. As a small child, she loved to stand on the pew next to her parents and “read” the hymns and sing with the congregation. She graduated from Lebanon Valley College and went on to Princeton Seminary, where she met her husband, Bruce Gillette. They were ordained as ministers in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She and Bruce have served in several churches in the Eastern United States, first in separate congregations and then as co-pastors. Carolyn has led workshops around the country on hymns and church music. Since 2004, Carolyn and Bruce have co-pastored at Limestone Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware.
Her first hymn was written in 1998 at a summer church conference when she was asked to write hymn lyrics to teach the 10 commandments to children. It was written to the familiar tune, “Lord, I Want to be a Christian”. Since then, she has written lyrics to over 260 hymns, all using familiar tunes that people know and can easily remember. When asked which hymn is her favorite, she replied that it is generally the most recent one. She is fortunate to have a very supportive husband who helps to share her hymns with others. Her hymns have been on national PBS stations and on the BBC television.
Paul Stookey of Peter Paul and Mary fame made a music video of her hymn, “O God, Our Words Cannot Express.” Like everyone else in this country on September 11, 2001, she was shocked and hurting from the horrors she saw on television that day. She and Bruce immediately organized a remembrance service for that very day and she wrote the hymn that was sung that night. It is sung to the tune, “St. Anne”, generally associated with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Although the hymn, written in the rawness of that tragic day, says our words cannot express our pain, it does a good job expressing the multiple emotions we felt. It would be appropriate any time calamity takes many lives and leaves us stunned.
A more current hymn reflecting America’s news is “The Children Come” sung to “Finlandia”, a tune often associated with “Be Still My Soul.” It was written in response to the unaccompanied children flooding into the U.S. from Central America in 2014. It is available free for use in local churches. She expresses the tribulations of children, our country’s response and what God’s Church ought to do. I thought it makes an interesting comparison and contrast to Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The Great Colossus”. Have times changed? Are we less welcoming to the huddled masses?