Musical Ministry

How one pastor bridges a cultural divide with the power of song
Header Kiran Young Wimberly The Mc Grath Family
Kiran Young Wimberly (center) and the McGrath family (left to right: Kelly, Chloe, Ellen, and Declan) on their Midwestern USA tour, performing at First Presbyterian Church in Michigan City, Indiana in 2018.

Kiran Young Wimberly, ThM ’16, MDiv ’05, is a pastor, singer, and songwriter with a deep interest in folk music. So when she moved to Northern Ireland, she didn’t hesitate to immerse herself in the traditional melodies of the Emerald Isle. She quickly noticed, however, that her local Protestant friends weren’t keen to share this new interest with her. “At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why Presbyterian churches didn’t use — and didn’t even want to talk about — traditional Irish music and melodies,” she says. “But the longer I was there, I started realizing that Protestants in Northern Ireland view traditional Irish tunes as belonging to the Catholic community.” The music is also politically charged, to the extent that just expressing an interest in traditional Irish music can be perceived by some as espousing anti-British beliefs.

But Young Wimberly couldn’t shake her love of the gentle and comforting melodies. So one day, in 2010, she set Psalm verses to a traditional Irish song and sang it in church. “We didn’t introduce it or explain it,” she says. “I just sang it. And people loved it.” The warm reception that day inspired her to arrange more music in this fashion.

Since then, Young Wimberly and the McGrath family have arranged and recorded three albums of Psalms set to traditional Irish music, and performed concerts in Protestant churches, Catholic churches, and secular venues alike. For the religious communities of Northern Ireland, their music has been a bridge-builder. Young Wimberly recalls the shared joy between Presbyterian elders and Catholic nationalists upon hearing the music and lyrics sung by a mixed gathering of Protestants and Catholics. “People in Northern Ireland are hungry for something that’s accessible to everyone,” she says. “This is a natural, easy, and inviting way to bring people together.”

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Kiran Young Wimberly (center) and the McGrath family (left to right: Kelly, Chloe, Ellen, and Declan) performing at Cahans Church, County Monaghan, Ireland in 2017.

Secular concerts produce a different but equally meaningful impact. “These are attended by people who aren’t necessarily religious but who are drawn to this music, either because they have some memory of Psalms or because the melodies are comforting to them,” Young Wimberly says. “After every secular concert, audience members approach us to express their surprise at having been so touched by the music. They often say they haven’t gone to church in ages, and don’t even know why they are at the concert, but have found meaning there.”

Young Wimberly and the McGrath's fourth album is anticipated to arrive in spring 2021. For her, it’s become a type of ministry invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I can minister to people without physically being with them in a congregation,” she says. “This kind of ministry is there for anyone to access, at any time in their life when they need comfort.”

Listen to Young Wimberly sing Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow in the recording below.

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