North Park Gospel Choir Has Audience On Its Feet

Post a Comment » Written on November 17th, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (November 17, 2008) – Michele Thomas stood backstage trembling with tears rolling down her cheeks following the North Park University Gospel Choir’s 15th Anniversary Concert on Saturday night.

“I never saw this 15 years ago,” she said, pausing to wipe another tear. “My heart is just so full.”

In 1993, Thomas was a freshman at North Park University when she approached school officials, asking for their support in starting a gospel choir. That year 15 people began rehearsing, and the number of participants swelled to 40 by the time the choir performed its first full-length concert on Mother’s Day in 2004.

ChoirOn Saturday night, 200 choir members and Thomas were joined by roughly 40 alumni from around the country, a liturgical dance team from Cleveland, Ohio, and famed gospel composer Richard Smallwood. Eight hundred people attended the concert held at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on the campus of Northwestern University. The event was moved offsite to accommodate the large audience.

The North Park University Gospel Choir has criss-crossed the country, entertaining and ministering to thousands of people at Evangelical Covenant churches. Their concerts also are among the most popular events on campus, where their concerts routinely attract standing-room-only crowds.

Thomas was one of only a few students with any experience of hearing or singing gospel music when she entered North Park. “I just wanted to share gospel music with other students,” Thomas recalled. “I wanted to bring them into that world and feel the experience.”

There was no plan to grow a large, established choir. “The vision I had was just to praise God,” Thomas said.

SingerSaturday night, it seemed as if everyone among the performers and audience did share in that experience. Thomas was not the only performer overwhelmed by the music. “This was an exciting out-of-body experience for me,” said Director Rollo Dilworth.

“This was one of the most incredible nights for me – not just musically, but in my whole life,” declared Dilworth, who has guided the choir since 1996 and has been asked to direct choirs around the world. “I will be forever changed!

“This is what I believe heaven is going to be like,” Dilworth continued. “This was all a glimpse of God’s glory!”

Also making a noted appearance throughout the concert was Mary Bridget Kustusch, who started North Park’s Gospel Sign Language Choir. Kustusch, a 2004 North Park graduate, formed the choir in 2002.

Seeing that the Sign Language Choir had continued and grown was “surreal,” said Kustusch, who returned for the night from Raleigh, North Carolina, where she is a Ph.D. candidate in physics at North Carolina State University.

DancerLike Thomas, Kustusch didn’t know what she was starting during her time at the school. “I had no idea it would continue,” she said with amazement.

The audience’s appreciation was expressed throughout the evening’s performance, beginning with extended applause as the choir entered and punctuated throughout with shouts of “amen” and hands raised in praise. Afterwards, audience members described the evening as “amazing” and incredible!”

The guiding text for the evening was Philippians 3:12-14: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (TNIV)

That theme of journey and pushing forward to a greater calling was echoed throughout the program. The Duffy Liturgical Dance Ensemble, with participants as young as age six through middle age, joined the 200 voices on “Ain’t A That Good News,” a traditional spiritual arranged by Dilworth.

Singer twoAudience members said they were humbled and excited by the visual of children who were not alive during the Civil Rights movement carrying on a tradition that inspires them to advance the Kingdom of God.

Thomas presented a solo of John P. Kee’s “Bread of Heaven.” The alumni choir joined the other singers on the rousing “He Reigns Forever” that cooked with the heat supplied by a brass section and alum David Johnson on vibraphone.

The first half ended with campus pastor Judy Peterson reading from Revelation 19 and the alumni joining the current choir to sing the standard of the same name. Dilworth said that although the piece was a regular part of the repertoire, Saturday night’s performance was the first time it was sung with the entire reading of the text.

DirectorThe second half of the concert highlighted the work of Smallwood and began with the evening’s theme song, “We’ve Come Too Far,” one of the composer’s hits. It, too, carried the message encouraging a journey of hope: “We’ve come this far by faith/Leaning on the Lord/Trusting in His Holy word/He never failed me yet/Oh’ Can’t Turn Around/We’ve come this far by faith.”

Reba Praise – a group from Reba Place Church in Evanston, Illinois – led the audience in powerful renditions of “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and a worship medley that brought the crowd to its feet. The five-member group includes several former and current North Park students and is directed by Helen Hudgens, associate professor of music at the university.

Smallwood joined the other musicians for “Angels” and “Bless the Lord.” The evening concluded with all of the performers on stage leading the audience in “Total Praise,” one of the most performed gospel songs of contemporary music.

Introducing the event, President David Parkyn said, “This is probably the proudest moment of my time here in Chicago.”

The evening was befitting the school’s foundational values, he said. Parkyn noted that the school is distinctly Christian. “What can be more distinctly Christian than gospel music?”

North Park also is intentionally urban. “Chicago is our neighborhood,” Parkyn said. “If it weren’t for Chicago, there wouldn’t be gospel music.” He cited the influence of Tommy Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, and the Pilgrim (Baptist) Church.

The school also is intentionally multiethnic. “Tonight we can join all our voices in a song of praise to God!” Parkyn declared.

And they did.

Editor’s note: Photos courtesy of Eric Staswick.

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