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HYMN 242 When I Needed a Neighbor, Were You There

Norwegian: Da jeg trengte en neste, var du der, var du der?

Swedish: Jag behövde en näste, var du där, var du där?

Matthew 25:31-46

Text: Sydney Carter (1915 -2004). Tune: Sydney Carter (1915-2004)

Uppsala Cathedral

1. When I needed a neighbour Were you there, were you there? When I needed a neighbour, were you there? And the creed and the colour And the name won't matter Were you there?

2. I was hungry and thirsty Were you there, were you there? I was hungry and thirsty, were you there? And the creed and the colour And the name won't matter Were you there?

3. I was cold, I was naked Were you there, were you there? I was cold, I was naked, were you there? And the creed and the colour And the name won't matter Were you there?

4. When I needed a shelter Were you there, were you there? When I needed a shelter were you there? And the creed and the colour And the name won't matter Were you there?

5. When I needed a healer Were you there, were you there? When I needed a healer, were you there? And the creed and the colour And the name won't matter Were you there?

6. Wherever you travel I'll be there, I'll be there Wherever you travel, I'll be there And the creed and the colour And the name won't matter I'll be there.

Sydney Carter © 1965 Steiner & Bell


Uppsala, for two weeks in July, 1968, the meeting of the World Council of Churches. It was a turbulent time in the world, felt keenly by the churches. The organization had begun in 1948 in Evanston, Illinois. It had been a place where theologians from churches around the world could gather to give speeches and make theological and ecclesiastical agreements. The meetings had been headline news in the secular press.

Eugene Carson Blake speaking at the meeting

The Uppsala meeting was held after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, and the death of Franklin Clark Fry. The meeting had a long agenda: it addressed ecumenism—made more possible after Vatican II, racism, nuclear war, problems in the Middle East, the need for more youth representation, etc. General Secretary Eugene Carson Blake in his report noted, in his acknowledgement of the unrest, what was beginning to be called the Generation gap. The question of European formal worship over against the emerging churches in Africa and Asia, and the young, began to break out. One reading the official report may not get all the ferment of the event—such things tend to be bureaucratic snoozers, but there was recognition something had happened which does not quite make these reports.

The best place to see it is in contemporary reports in the media of the day. A representative from Canada wrote back to his local paper in Regina, Saskatchewan with more details—noting especially the presence of youth. A great number of youth from around the world, but especially Scandinavia, had organized a forty mile march from Stockholm to Uppsala to protest the contradictions of an Assembly with the theme "I make all things new" led by clergy in “medieval regalia.” Dressed as hippies they drew attention to that issue. James Baldwin spoke, remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., Pete Seeger was there with his protest songs and folk music; there were jazz worship services in the Cathedral—all of which put the older delegates a bit on edge, judging from the reports.

Demonstrators at WCC meeting in Uppsala

I knew some of the people who organized the protest during that time and they were very effective in making their case. Their theme song, whenever they were asked to settle down, was this song.

The group discussing worship trends and how the church should meet the new age didn’t really get to have a good discussion according to my old colleague Pastor Henry Horn who was there, I believe. I heard him many times lament that just as things were about to get going the kids started holding up their banners and singing this song. And although as a campus pastor at University Lutheran in Cambridge MA he understood student protest, he regretted the interruptions.

That was the nature of the time and of protests. Hearing this song brings me back to that turbulence again. I started teaching at Luther College that fall, 1968. My students were all baby boomers, privileged by their parents from the Greatest Generation who had wanted to spare their kids from the issues they had faced as youth: the Depression, and WWII. It was an upsetting time for me personally—here I was just 25 years old, not even 30 yet, and the students, on whose side I was, to an extent, marked me as an enemy. As faculty, I was on the wrong team. It was a difficult year.

Fifty years later it is interesting to see that generation of baby boomers, now long in the tooth and struggling with Covid-19. The colleges which started booming at that time are dealing with shut downs and survival. The questions the WCC Assembly were asking are still with us, even more urgently . We are having a rough ride politically today, much rougher than it was back then. And then the pandemic.

Still, the question of the neighbor posed by this song is salient. Have we been good about serving them? Our prayer should be that we have been.


Sydney Carter

Sydney Carter, something of a darling of the youth movement, and best known for his song, "The Lord of the Dance," wrote this in the early 1960s. A member of the greatest generation, he lived through WWII as a conscientious objector and was much taken with the Quaker faith. It became, like this one, a product of an effort to write texts and tunes that people of many faiths could sing together without causing division. This hymn is in the Norwegian and Swedish hymnals and many throughout the world. It is an easy song to sing—one simply adds new concerns to the sentence “When I needed a ….” Carter died in 2004 probably from some form of Alzheimers.


Romsey Abbey Choir at a hymn sing about a housing crisis in the UK

Norwegian version/Marit Carlsen og Simon Flem Devold/Barnetro

Swedish/Lars Åke Lundberg 1969 version

Daniel Shiells

Cornerstone Methodist

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1 Comment

Thank you so much for this fascinating piece about the World Council of Churches, and especially the meeting in 1968. Distracted by what was going on in the U.S. I knew nothing of this. The first link has a beautiful contrast between the medieval abbey and the new music.

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