By Elizabeth Nailling
On Saturday, Oct. 15, the harmonious sounds from Memorial Chapel echoed across campus, uplifting the spirits of every student and dog-walker who happened to pass by.
These were the voices of the Community Interfaith Gospel Choir practicing for Gather ‘Round: Find Your Voice, part of Union College’s Presidential Forum on Diversity, Religion, Spiritual Life and Interfaith event that was open to the public that afternoon.
Anyone from the community was invited to register for this enlightening and entertaining experience that consisted of a workshop from 6:30 to 9 p.m. the preceding Friday night and all-day Saturday until the performance at 4:30 p.m.
During the workshop, participants worked with choral director Rev. Shaun Whitehead, an Associate University Chaplain at St. Lawrence University, to learn and practice gospel music that could relate to all religions.
The concert featured Union College’s Heavenly Voices, directed by Lyndon Walters, and the Community Interfaith Choir that was created and directed by Rev. Whitehead especially for this concert.
There was also a band that accompanied both choirs, a presentation entitled Interfaith Connections to Gospel Music given by Deidre Hill-Butler, the Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of Africana Studies here at Union, and Union’s Heavenly Liturgical Dance Ministry (directed by Kendall Allen ‘13).
Senior Director of Campus Diversity Gretchel Hathaway and President Stephen Ainlay introduced the central idea of the event in their welcoming speeches to the audience of Union students, faculty, alumni and other members of the community.
They spoke of how gospel is a genre of music with a colorful history that can be related to and enjoyed by people of all faiths because its main purpose is to celebrate life and encourage people through hard times.
This theme relates to President Ainlay and Gretchel Hathaway’s plan this year of focusing on enriching the campus community with opportunities to learn about religions.
“At a school like Union, it is important that people become religiously fluent,” said President Stephen Ainlay. “At the beginning of the day, it’s about how mutual understanding will be achieved. At the end of the day, it’s about how mutual respect will be achieved.”
Gather ‘Round: Find Your Voice not only provided the members of the campus community who participated or attended the concert with an opportunity to learn about gospel music and how it relates to all of us, but it also put forth an extremely entertaining and moving performance.
The members of the choir and band possessed a contagious energy that made some of us in attendance want to just jump on the stage and join them during their upbeat songs, including “Let it Rise” and “Revelation 19:1.”
The performances brought a tear to our eyes with spiritual ballads such as the beginning of “You are Good.”
In her presentation towards the end of the concert, Hill-Butler outlined the history of gospel, tracing it back to its roots with folk spirituals sung by enslaved African Americans.
She then followed the style’s legacy to its role of unifying people under a common cause during the Civil Rights Movement, during which the words of older religious songs were changed to fit the realms of social justice.
Furthermore, Hill-Butler discussed gospel’s existence in the present among all kinds of religious congregations, such as Joshua Nelson’s Kosher Gospel and the Dublin Gospel Choir.
The concert closed with a short dance number to an obscure version of “Amazing Grace” by Union’s Heavenly Liturgical Dance Ministry and two more energetic songs by the Community Interfaith Gospel Choir.