I Want Jesus to Walk With Me (ELW 325): A Song for Our Lenten Journey
By Rob Durocher
Minister or Worship and the Arts, Deacon
Deep from the history of the African American Spiritual comes a song without a known author or a known source for its tune and yet it is one of the most powerful songs of longing for a champion, a comforter, and a guide along the journey of life. “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me” has words that penetrate our soul and come from the unknown author’s heart because the words are so rich in emotion with a very deep reaching message – longing for the presence of a Savior.
This song has three simple verses:
(1) ‘I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.’
(2) ‘In my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.’
(3) ‘When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.’
But in these three simple verses the author of the song’s desperate cry is for Jesus to be ‘a very present help in times of trouble’ (from Psalm 46:1), when the heart is breaking and the burden is too heavy, ‘when my head is bound in sorrow.’ The author knew how much they needed Jesus and how comforting it is to know that Jesus walks with us in our journey through life and the many things that we encounter all along our pilgrim journey. Jesus is always with us as we long for his companionship.
In this season of Lent, in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we hear of Jesus who is alone in the wilderness as he encounters Satan, the tempter, for forty days. Mark’s writings of Jesus in the wilderness remind us that because Jesus walked ‘this lonesome valley,’ we’ll never go through our wilderness alone because Jesus is with us, facing the wild beasts, facing temptation and when the angels are ministering to us! Even when we feel like the world has been stripped away and those things that we’ve trusted and depended upon are fleeting – God is not! Jesus, who became ‘flesh and dwelt among us’, also walked the earth in his identity with us. Jesus knew sorrow and was acquainted with grief. The unknown writer of this song knew that they needed Jesus to walk with them at every turn of the transient nature of life.
“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” is a song of communal lament, a song of invitation, and a song of assurance that Jesus walks alongside those who suffer. In its context as an African American Spiritual, the association of slavery, the horrible plight and yet faithful association with Jesus was of such a personal nature that they believed that Jesus accompanied them daily on their earthly journey and helped them endure its pains and sorrows. Gwendolin Warren, an African American author, in reflection on this spiritual, wrote:
‘African-American Christians found great comfort and encouragement in believing that this life was only a journey, a “passing through to a better place . . . As they passed through the bitter trials of this earth, their desire was that they not walk alone, but that Jesus walk with them. Knowing that Jesus, who had already passed through the fiery trials and come out triumphant on the other side, was walking beside them gave them courage to go on.’
Interestingly enough, many African American spirituals have no authors because they were often the spontaneous utterances of those who sang them born from the fruit of the creative capacity of an entire people rather than individuals. These utterances give voice to joys, sorrows and hopes of a people and the influences of the environment from which they sprang. (Ellen Gunther, In Their Own Words) Their songs speak about the rupture of black lives telling about a people in bondage and how through their faith and singing they were able to hold themselves together. Their songs helped them to retain their ‘cultural identity’ even while dwelling in a strange land. Even as the author of this spiritual pleads for Jesus to walk alongside us, there seems to be an assurance that Jesus’ answer is ‘yes,’ because as the psalmist writes, ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (Psalm 23:4) Perhaps in this song we might find ourselves proclaiming that ‘the God in whom we take refuge calls us to provide refuge for those cast aside.’
While this hymn is often associated with Lent, it could be sung throughout the year because its message is that of a life’s journey. The tune that we sing this song to is thought to be named after Sojourner Truth, (1797 – 1883) an enslaved woman and heroine of the Underground Railroad who spoke about freedom and equality for all. Moses Hogan, (1957-2003) an African American and Julliard School of Music graduate, was known for creating an arrangement of this song that is sung today.
“I Want Jesus To Walk With Me” is a song that acknowledges the struggle and the narrow way to which Jesus calls us. As we continue our Lenten journey along the pathway that eventually leads to our Easter, let’s continually seek Jesus who walks with us along our pilgrim journey. Even though the sorrows, brokenness and troubles of this world will never define us – we still need Jesus to walk with us. Even as we recognize that this world is not our final home – we still need Jesus to walk with us! While not everyone will be facing trouble, or trial or sorrow, some will, and as the body of Christ who are one in Christ, together we call on Jesus to ‘walk with us, to stay with us.’