Singers of all (and no) faiths
From the February, 2014 issue
I knew I'd get the question, and, sure enough, less than five minutes after I arrived someone asked, "So, what's a nice Jewish boy like you doing here at Gospelfest?" Fair question, but those familiar with Gospelfest know that it frequently draws--besides Christians of nearly every denomination, and yes, some Jews--Buddhists, members of the interfaith community, and even agnostics and atheists.
Gospelfest has always pitched a big tent. Jean Wilson, choir director at St. Paul United Church of Christ in Saline and one of the annual event's co-founders, says that, when it began in 1992, the goal was "to bring together many different faith traditions" around a common interest in gospel music. And that's what this nice Jewish boy was doing at Gospelfest: exploring a long-held interest in and affection for gospel music. As the old New York subway ads used to say, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's real rye bread." You also don't have to be Christian to feel stirred by the intricate syncopations, dazzling rhythms, and emotional power of gospel music.
So we, well over a hundred strong, talented amateurs to trained professionals, church choir members and probably some people whose kids ask them to stop singing, spent the afternoon of Gospelfest singing. Led by five music directors from churches around the Ann Arbor area and Detroit, we sang traditional African American spirituals like "I'm Gonna Eat at the Welcome Table" and Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" as well as new songs written by Gospelfest guest directors. The atmosphere was relaxed but focused, the music not easy, and the instruction at once low-key and exacting. When we repeatedly muffed a passage in one of the songs, a director deadpanned, "We'll have to pay the composer extra if we change it, so let's do it the way it's written."
After about four hours of rehearsal, with a short break to share snacks we brought, it was dinnertime, during which we continued the fellowship that
Gospelfest encourages. Then came the evening performance, with several of the participating church choirs offering their variety of worship songs and concluding with our mass choir singing the songs we'd learned in the afternoon.
Several times during the day, I thought of Martin Luther King's words, "Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America." According to Wilson, "Gospelfest has become more and more inclusive. The process of seeing, learning, and participating in new faith traditions has served to take down walls and create relationships."
I left unconverted in my faith (conversion, of course, was never the intention) but feeling that Gospelfest had succeeded in its dual goals of deepening appreciation for gospel music and forming bridges between people.
Gospelfest 2014 will be held on February 22 at Brown Chapel AME Church in Ypsilanti.
[Originally published in February, 2014.]