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Grayson Warren Brown, Gospel Mass pioneer, dead at 75

The internationally known liturgist, author, and speaker was an integral cog in the Black Catholic Movement and quickly gained broad popularity.

(Grayson Warren Brown/Facebook)

Grayson Warren Brown, an internationally known Black Catholic composer and liturgist who helped pioneer the Gospel Mass concept, has died at the age of 75 in Jacksonville, Florida. No cause of death was announced.

The news was first publicized internally by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), which shared of his passing early Sunday morning. Brown was an NPM member for many years, having served in ministry since the late 1960s—the genesis of the Black Catholic Movement in the United States.

Born in 1948 in Brooklyn, New York, Brown displayed his talent at a young age, first working as an organist and choir director for his home parish, St. Ann Catholic Church, while still in high school. He would convert from Protestantism and study theology at Fordham University as an undergraduate, before going full-time at St. Ann’s and at a church of the same name in Newark, New Jersey.

Brown quickly became known across the country as a gifted presenter and educator, as well as for his genre-crossing music, mixing Black gospel stylings with the rubrics and classics of the Western Catholic tradition. Along with such luminaries as his early mentor Fr Clarence Rivers, as well as Leon C. Roberts and Eddie Bonnemère, Brown would become a major pioneer in the field, writing what is today recognized as one of the first bona fide Gospel Masses following the Second Vatican Council—and the first written by a layperson.

“Grayson had a natural gift, an anointed heart and spirit that he used to glorify God. He was a trailblazer and had an inner boldness that made our parish of St. Ann in Brooklyn probably the first Black gospel parish in the Brooklyn Diocese,” said Joan Davenport, a longtime friend of Brown’s. 

“Whatever he wrote, we prayed (sang) with a spirit of conviction… Grayson’s music opened the doors for Black Catholics to not just sing with their voice, but to pray from their heart. Grayson’s boldness became our boldness!”

Brown’s first album arrived in 1977, “Hymns of a Soulfull People” recorded with the famed Howard University Gospel Choir and featuring each part of the Mass rendered in the African-American musical idiom. The work had been published some years prior with Fr Rivers’ Stimuli Inc. outfit and featured the hymns “Jesus, the Bread of Life,” “Christ Has Died,” and “Jesus Died Upon the Cross,” all of which have become interdenominational Christian worship staples.

Another Gospel Mass, “I Will Rejoice: A Song of Gathering,” was recorded live two years later at the second annual NPM national convention, followed by the Christmas album “Have You Heard the News” in 1982 and “Cast Your Bread Upon The Water” in 1985. 

Been So Busy”—whose title track also became a classic Catholic gospel hymn—was released in 1994, inaugurating a lasting relationship with Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), which would publish Brown’s music for the rest of his career.

Brown speaking at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in 2015. (OCP/YouTube)

At the height of the Black Catholic Movement—which facilitated the infusion of Black culture, activism, and spirituality into much of urban Catholic life—Brown served as a member of the Culture & Worship Advisory Committee for the National Office of Black Catholics (NOBC), an advocacy and outreach group with the ear of the nation’s Catholic bishops. 

Brown was also a prolific author, contributing during the 1970s to the NOBC’s quarterly journal, “Freeing the Spirit,” and writing a number of books. Among others, they include “Jesusgate: A Novel,” “God's Liberating Justice,” and “The Transformative Power of Faith,” released in 2015 with OCP and later gaining an accompanying video series.

Never restricted to the Black cultural expression, Brown’s eminently theocentric music—including classics such as “God Be in My Head,” “If God Be For Us,” and “I Will Rejoice”—had a wide appeal and gained traction in Catholic parishes and other ministries around the world, as well as in various Protestant churches.

Brown’s final album, 2017’s “Praise the Lord in Many Voices,” leaned fully into the multicultural oeuvre, featuring Catholic hymns in several languages and styles, reflecting a more general shift in his music that had taken place during his time with OCP.

“Grayson's focus was so much deeper than just a Catholic perspective of creating ‘gospel’ music,” said Yoel B'nai Yehuda (formerly known as Val Parker), a longtime collaborator with Brown who played piano on and arranged the music for several of his albums.

“His focus was always how, through music and liturgy, to bring Catholics together for the sake of social justice, for all the people of God.”

In one of Brown’s last national public appearances, an interview with Mater Dei Radio in 2018 after his retirement to Florida, he noted what could be described as his defining theological and musical motivation.

“If just every day, I can try a little bit harder to open myself up to [His] love so that I can then return, it's the only way you can really love someone,” he said.

“The Beatles had a right way back in the 60s: all you need is love. We really, really need to start loving each other and taking care of each other, being good to each other. Jesus said on these two commandments everything else rests.”

Brown’s official obituary notes that he is survived by his wife Collette, his stepchildren Corinne, Lisa, and Lincoln, and his siblings Byron, Robert, and Novella. He also leaves behind several nieces and nephews.

Visitation for Brown will take place on Friday, July 14, at the Jacksonville Memory Gardens Chapel from 4 to 7pm ET. A Memorial Mass has been scheduled for Saturday, July 15, at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Orange Park, Florida, at 10:30am. A reception and inurnment will take place thereafter. Flowers can be sent to the family via the Memory Gardens website.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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