Fall 2002 - Volume II, Issue
I sit here approximately one
month after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in
an intellectual community that is reaching out for healing and understanding. I
decided after the attacks that this should be the semester I write about the
experience of Lesley University's Gospel Choir, UNITY. I've been researching,
writing, and presenting about gospel music, spirituality, and cross-cultural
work for several years (see Barone, 1996, 1997a, 1997b, 2000; Barone &
Bedell, 1998). I'm an insider in UNITY as I have been its advisor/coordinator
and a singer since its inception. I've also presented about the themes of
gospel music from the perspective of healing from trauma using Harvey's
extension of Judith Herman's work (Harvey, 1996; Herman, 1992; Barone &
Bedell, 1998). That healing has seemed particularly apt this semester. The
choir's experience may begin to elucidate the power and the controversy in
singing gospel music, stretching inside cultures in a true pluralistic and
multi-cultural way for solace and courage to go on with our lives.
African American undergraduate student, Nakia Campbell, founded the choir in
the 1993-1994 academic year. Nakia saw the choir as a way to provide a "church
home" for students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, hence the name UNITY,
but especially for African American students. Nakia's background in music and
her church affiliation led her to conduct UNITY as a traditional gospel choir
(see, for example, Linton, 1998). This included prayer said at the beginning,
end, and sometimes mid-rehearsal. The choir members were white and black
Christians who, even if they were non-participants at their own churches,
understood the messages of the music and accepted, even perhaps expected,
prayer as a part of their choir participation. Nakia invited her own minister
to Lesley to open a concert and preach at intermission, a common practice at
other local college gospel choirs. UNITY was popular with students on the
undergraduate campus and was invited to sing at various campus events including
ALANA celebrations, Family and Friends Weekend, and Admissions recruitment
events. The choir sang off-campus at churches and at a local college Gospel
My work with the choir as an advisor began in 1994. A life-long
singer, raised by two musicians, I was happy not only to advise, but also to
join the group. Undergraduate activity advisors generally have a supportive
role, while the group's procedures and functioning are left to the students.
When Nakia decided to leave Lesley to pursue her other interests, the choir was
left without a director for a year. Concern was expressed, even on the Lesley
Board of Trustees, that the choir not be allowed to languish too long since it
was seen as a positive symbol of the university's commitment to students of
color. As faculty advisor, I was the person to whom both students and
administrators referred in terms of the choir's continuity. I was asked to
solicit resumes for a new director. Nakia had been funded through a student
scholarship for her directorial duties.
To hire a professional
director, I asked for help from both the undergraduate school and the Dean of
Students' office. Funding came forward with a commitment to open the choir as
the university's first cross campus activity. After reviewing several resumes,
a group of 10 singers and I auditioned Linda Brown San Martin in 1996. The
university hired her based on our recommendation and she has been our director
since that time. Linda Brown San Martin, an African American woman from a
religious background, has conducted various gospel choirs, including several
college-based choirs, church choirs and even one for women in recovery at a
local drug rehabilitation facility. She currently teaches music at a local
elementary school, serves as Minister of Music at her church, and occasionally
works with a mostly white, large choral group, and her own small vocal
With the opening of the group to cross-campus membership, my
role became differentiated; I was to now recruit members, address any issues
for the director and for the administration, and generally support the cross
campus nature of the endeavor. The faculty coordinator role is recognized by
the administration in my workload, by the choir director in her work with me
around the group's pedagogy and procedures, and by the choir members, who have
referred to me as the group's "cheerleader". However, the role is not always
understood. My perspective on my role is that it is part 'theologian', part
amateur musician, part psychologist, and part faculty member. I included my own
pedagogical philosophy in the running of the group because of the need to
establish procedures for auditions and rehearsals, to conduct member outreach
into various Lesley constituencies, and to negotiate how spirituality was to be
voiced during rehearsals and concerts among other issues.
and clinical practice philosophies were forged at the Center for Multicultural
Training in Psychology (CMTP) in Boston. The emphasis at CMTP was on going
inside cultures to share their strengths and to view people not solely from the
mainstream. My own clinical work and teaching have focused on working with
marginalized groups, sometimes across languages, around stress and trauma
issues. The CMTP model is also reflected in feminist thought across disciplines
that address issues of marginality (see, for example, hooks, 1994; Hill
Collins, 1991). Thus, as a white female faculty member and as the UNITY faculty
coordinator working with an African-American choir director, I am often
thinking about insider-outsider statuses. I am an insider because of my faculty
position, in relation to university functioning and politics, and an outsider
in terms of my relation to the African American spiritual community, often
referred to as the 'Black Church'.
Underlying the development of the
coordinator's role is my attempt to share power among the director, the members
of the choir, the institution, and myself. My own beliefs are that the
functioning of UNITY should and can address the marginality that has been
assigned by dominant groups to African Americans and others in this society. I
do not always announce the multi-cultural, feminist, and anti-racist views I
attach to my role as coordinator, but I believe they can be seen in the
functioning of the group and in my co-leadership with the director. I believe
this mostly unannounced empowerment subtext is possible because Lesley's
pedagogy addresses so well what other institutions are only beginning to
address: learning from the insider's view. This is what bell hooks (1994) calls
"engaged pedagogy", where both teacher and student are responsible for the
learning community. I believe UNITY portrays this active learning community
where all gain knowledge from each other in an atmosphere that promotes respect
Lesley's focus on diversity and inclusion extends to its
co-curricular activities. Of the college gospel choirs I have visited in the
Boston area, UNITY seems to emphasize inclusiveness as one of its main goals;
for example, no other choir has consistently had a cross campus membership.
UNITY has had over 120 singers under the direction of Linda Brown San Martin
including the Dean of Students, a Lesley University trustee, the university's
chaplain, faculty, staff, students, and alumni from all parts of the
University. Among the students who participate are students from Lesley's
Threshold program, an on campus non-degree program for young adults with
diverse learning disabilities and other special needs. These students need to
make an extra time commitment to learn the music and the director and I work
hard to devise pedagogy that reaches them.
In terms of its diversity,
UNITY is a multi-cultural group that includes students of color from many
different religious backgrounds; white students of differing ethnic and
religions origins; students with differing sexual orientations; and
international students, primarily Japanese undergraduate women. In terms of
status levels at the university, faculty and others with power and status at
the University participate in the choir as equal members with students, with
the same requirements in terms of learning music and movement. Finally, in
terms of differing ability levels, for Threshold students, and others
struggling with musicality, UNITY offers views of how inclusiveness might work
in a setting governed by pluralism, with ways for all to participate. For
example, not all members may be able to memorize all the music or movements for
a concert, and members are allowed to participate in as much as they are able
to. Many members report that UNITY is the most diverse experience that they
have on campus and that it gives them a sense of being equal with others (e.g.
This inclusion stance extends to spirituality and
religious background. The director's experiences at other colleges and human
service agencies, where she was asked to lead clients in gospel singing, and
the University's emphasis on open participation support a non-sectarian
position in terms of choir membership. Nakia and I had discussed this when the
group was first founded; I wondered what her views were on non-Christians
joining the group. We eventually agreed that people find their way to gospel
music for different reasons and she made no attempt to question people's
beliefs. This debate about diverse spirituality among UNITY's members created a
strong tension in the group and across campus in its first few semesters
because the gospel tradition is distinctly a Christian, Black Church experience
(Petrie, 1998; Campbell, 1995, Boyer, 1978). In terms of procedures and
policies, UNITY's open participation and honoring of the Black Church origins
of the music needed to be addressed. I will consider these below.
activity supported by a private, non-sectarian university, UNITY should be able
to provide a model for open participation and spiritual diversity. UNITY does
this in several ways. First, members who wish to offer a prayer do so
voluntarily, although the most common practice is silent prayer in a circle of
joined hands. Second, the director and I have encouraged members who want to
pray aloud to do so from their own traditions. The director has also supported
this effort by stretching the musical repertoire of the choir to include
spiritual music of other cultural traditions including Jewish and South
African. This is a clear demonstration of how to institute policy and
procedures allowing for open participation.
The choir's existence and its
continued support by the administration as a cross campus activity demonstrates
Lesley's commitment to building public space for diversity work. It is rare for
people who are not members of the Black Church to be invited to sing gospel
music in an on-going way (Boyer, 1978; McQuaid, 1999). There are some semesters
where the choir may have only one or two African American members. However,
while not all black and other minority community members and students may join
the choir, the presence of UNITY is important to them. In fact, the Dean of
Students, who states that she is not a strong singer, felt that she needed to
participate in UNITY during several semesters to make that point precisely,
that the choir is important. There are currently more white students than
students of color in the choir, but there are many students and community
members of color in the audience at the concerts each semester, which speaks to
the importance of a continuing presence for the choir. A unique part of UNITY's
concerts is the director's practice of inviting audience members on stage to
sing with the choir during a portion of the concert. Many of these participants
join UNITY in subsequent semesters or are seen connecting with each other on
campus after the concert. Long term audience members as well as members of the
choir have talked about what UNITY means to them. Most often, they mention
opening up to whatever their own spirituality is as well as being strengthened
and energized (e.g. Bedell, 1999).
In the field of psychology and at academic
institutions, the tightly held premise of the separation of church and state
has been used to exclude the need to address spiritual issues as a part of
academe. The "me" decades of the 1970s and '80s spawned a civic and spiritual
impoverishment that helped to change that premise. It is well described by
Cornel West (1994) in Race Matters:
"We have created rootless, dangling
people with little link to the supportive networks; family, friends, school;
that sustain some sense of purpose in life. We have witnessed the collapse of
spiritual communities that in the past helped Americans face despair, disease,
and death and that transmit through the generations dignity and decency,
excellence and elegance" (p. 5).
The nihilism of the 1990s increased the
academy's recognition of the need to broaden our understanding of spirituality
and other practices that might facilitate civic engagement. West is echoed by
bell hooks (1994) who critiques academe:
It was difficult to maintain
fidelity to the idea of an intellectual as someone who sought to be whole; well-grounded in a place where there is little emphasis on
spiritual well-being, on care of the soul (p 16).
Many have written that
in black communities, the secular and the spiritual are not separate (West,
cited in Njeri, 1997; Rogers-Dulan, 1998; Wilson & Stith, 1991), and this
has served as one model against nihilism: the civically engaged religious
participant. In the context of the history of the Black Church having civic as
well as moral authority, West speaks to the empowerment offered by the Black
"…specifically within the Black Church context, we are talking
about forms of counsel and advice, forms of sustenance that can keep us going
when we‚ are radically...against the odds"(in Njeri, p 303).
UNITY rehearsal an African American graduate student commented to me on the
still lingering mind-body-spirit splits in academia. She felt that UNITY was
the first place at Lesley where her experiences as a black Christian woman
empowered by her faith were honored; this student felt that what was being
reinforced in some class discussion and assigned reading was that Christianity
was oppressive. This could appear to be a response to certain repressive and
conservative Christian churches, but also to the portrayal of white Christians'
experiences, as compared to black Christians' experiences, as the template on
which to evaluate Christianity's impact as a whole. I see this view when I try
to recruit students and others to the choir; even if they have been church
involved in the past, many currently do not see spiritual or religious
involvement as empowering. They see, for example, only anti-womanist or
homophobic messages in their church backgrounds.
It is only in the last
five or so years that there has been willingness in psychology and in medicine
to study the empowering aspects of spirituality, spiritual well-being, and
participation in organized religion; Lesley's Institute for
Mind-Body-Spirituality is one such example. Spiritual well-being and religious
participation are now seen to positively affect physical and mental health (see
for example, Koenig, 1998; Jacques, 1998). I have conducted analog research to
look at what the lyrics of gospel music speak to in terms of dealing with
stress and trauma (Barone & Bedell, 1998). Besides the music therapy
benefits that come from actually singing (see, for example, Holland, 1996;
Moon, 1998; Montello & Coons, 1998), the words themselves speak
specifically to empowering yourself through connection to a higher power. Thus,
I try to educate others that coming from the history of the Black Church and
its members' struggle with oppression, gospel music can be empowering.
Derrick Bell in his book Gospel Choirs: Psalms of
Survival in an Alien Land Called Home (1996) describes a fictional character's
interaction with gospel music. He believes that gospel music can reach
everyone. Bell states (1996):
"There is in gospel music a universality
capable of touching all who hear and need its comfort, its consolation …
Perhaps gospel music is the much-sought link that can unite the people of this
nation, across barriers of race and color, class and creed …" (p 4)
my own research on gospel music, I have not been able to locate many feminist
views on the empowerment of learning to sing gospel music within traditional or
non-traditional contexts. Greta Edwards' recent talk (9/24/01) at the Episcopal
Divinity School was an exception. A consultant to the Women's Studies program
at Harvard, she encouraged and cautioned future ministers to consider gospel
music both based on its history and on its healing power, a power intrinsically
tied to black women's voices. She made it clear that she felt there were many
issues to be tackled before gospel music could be brought into largely white
church settings, but she implied that it was not impossible if all were willing
to journey together.
My own response to singing gospel music is to see
it as liberating. It is interesting to see how bell hooks' (1994) ideas about
engaged pedagogy could be applied to gospel music participation. I have
considered how singing the music and absorbing the lyrics seem to empower
students to find their ways to healing, to become more assertive, and to see
themselves as equal to others. How is this done?
Reaching UNITY's members
means reaching (primarily) women students (both graduate and undergraduate)
who, in some way, are searching for voice and their own sense of self in the
world. The outcomes of learning to sing gospel music; a high volume, emotional
expression of spirituality; have real impacts on them (Bedell,
1999). In research I sponsored, Sheri Bedell found that this empowerment is
experienced at even higher levels by groups who are doubly or triply oppressed.
By the semester's end, many, if not all previously timid young women, are
belting out notes with visions of "Viking Women" in their heads. This is a
visualization invented by the director to connote that the students should
aspire to be as strong in their singing and presence as opera divas so that the
messages of gospel music can be powerfully delivered. It is not difficult to
imagine how this experience could promote increased assertiveness in the lives
of these young students.
Hooks' (1994) explanation of the development
of a learning community where all participate and all journey is seen at UNITY.
In terms of leadership, members witness a an educational setting where a black
woman leads, since she has more skills and is ensconced in the cultural
tradition, and a white woman does the background work of supporting the group.
The director and I cooperate and debate, both behind the scenes and in front of
the group, in terms of explaining and learning about different points of view
on teaching techniques and spirituality. Perhaps because the group is engaged
in the cooperative task of producing music and because of the model of
leadership, respect is high on all sides in UNITY (Bedell, 1999). It allows
members to immerse themselves, admit when they don't understand something, or
ask for explanations of unfamiliar scriptural references in the song lyrics.
Sometimes members also share their own techniques for learning songs since
working from tapes without sheet music is a new experience for many singers.
All of the above variables and the commitment required for members with
busy lives to search for time to listen to tapes, learn a part, learn new
movements, etc. results in a transformation where an 'unfamiliar' (for some)
language and mode of interacting becomes, in some way, their own. Not all
members can make this journey, (about 15-20 complete each semester) but it is
heartening that many who don't complete a semester often try out again later
and come on stage during the audience participation part of the concert
program. This speaks to the impact of participation in what many see as an
At an early point in the group's
history after the professional director was hired, a public performance at a
campus event sparked a chain of events and discussion that appeared to elude my
every attempt at input and intervention. The incident, now only a footnote in
the group's six years of work with the professional director, was an attempt at
a family weekend talent show to invite everyone in the audience to participate.
A family complained to the undergraduate dean that they felt their daughter was
being "coerced" into Christianity and threatened a lawsuit if the choir
performed at other campus functions, citing separation of church and state.
This and other early issues were raised with the dean and discussed by
administrators. They included a white student's concern that the prayer circle
and African American focus at UNITY did not support her spirituality (and one
would assume her cultural identity); some administrators' concerns about
whether there were 'enough' students of color in the group; and the exclusion
of some singers, many times Threshold students, from singing, based on their
level of musicality. On all of the issues, I tried to join in conversation, but
I believe I was seen as too much of an advocate and not dispassionate enough
about the group's methods and centeredness inside African American culture. My
own participation in African American culture through my long term partnered
relationship and my knowledge of what went on at other college-based gospel
choirs weren't enough; I was the 'outsider.' I ended up thinking
about an APA conference meeting where white and black women were invited to
discuss similarities and differences; one of the black women organizers asked
me why so many white lesbians were interested in this work. When I answered
that I felt lesbians were also oppressed and that a feminist consciousness
should include anti-racist work, she didn't seem convinced. When conflicts came
up with UNITY, I wondered, if the coordinator were black and male, would his
views on the multi-cultural learning in the choir be taken more seriously?
The Dean of Students finally convened an advisory board, which met several
times with very tense discussions on church vs. state issues and the place of a
gospel choir at an academic institution. That group included the President's
Special Assistant for Affirmative Action, the Dean of Students, Threshold
faculty, student services administrators, and me. We attempted to educate each
other about differing perspectives and came to a general agreement that both
supported the choir and changed some language and actions to recognize UNITY's
unique place at an institution of higher learning.
I speak only for myself when I
say what I believe to be the outcome of this politicking, but some of it has
been clarifying and of benefit to the group in terms of freedom to function.
The first was the placement of UNITY, as Nakia had meant it, along with Hillel,
the Catholic community and Christian student groups as well as the University
Chaplaincy, as a voluntary spiritual and musical experience. Thus, we
emphasized that there were other opportunities for students to express their
spirituality on campus and that they could start their own groups, as UNITY had
been started, based on students' interests.
This also meant supporting
other opportunities for students and others to sing on campus and around
Cambridge. We asked the undergraduate humanities program, which supports the
Lesley Community chorus, to open their group for cross campus membership. Other
singing possibilities were listed in the undergraduate student handbook. We
made clear that spirituality was at the center of the group, but we have
emphasized a diverse spirituality, not religion. When students themselves ask
for an explanation of the theology of song lyrics, the director gives it, along
with biblical scripture references. She is often likely to say, "Religion is
complicated; God is easy: God is love." While that does not even begin to
explain her religious beliefs, it does honor the diverse religious and
spiritual traditions in the group's members and the empowering messages from
the Black Church found in gospel music.
validating of the group's broadly spiritual mission with an ecumenical
membership has allowed me as coordinator to confront some misguided and / or
inappropriate requests for the choir's performance at certain events.
Invitations to sing at any campus event have been generally considered, but the
university chaplain and the ALANA student organization have been the most
frequent requesters. A request to perform at a reception for an African
American speaker caused me to pause. I ascertained from the event planner an
assumption that the choir would 'add a little bit of color' and liveliness to
the proceedings. The request dismissed the possibility that the speaker would
not want a gospel choir at her reception and also that perhaps she was of
another, non-Christian religious background. I denied the request, citing
"policy" that the group only perform at spiritually oriented events.
have come to support this view as congruent with the anti-racist work of the
group. Many writers note that African Americans' cultural gifts, including
gospel music, have often been co-opted with the mistaken and racist idea that
one can import a 'bit of culture' for entertainment only (e.g. Edwards,
9/24/01, Boyer, 1973). The question of who should carry on the traditions of
the African diaspora is often raised when I attend talks about gospel music.
Some deride gospel music's performance in secular settings as troublesome
(Boyer, 1978) or even as a bastardization used to "make people feel better
between episodes of Ally McBeal" (Edwards, 9/24/01). As removed from gospel
music's African American history or apart from any attempt to explore what
transformation is necessary to truly witness gospel music, secular performance
runs the risk of perpetuating and invalidating oppressive experiences that
marginalized groups have. In the current climate of crisis, though, some
critics have softened their views, allowing that all paths to healing are
necessary in troubled times. UNITY's performances off campus have most often
been requested by churches in the gospel tradition or by churches engaged in
anti-racism work as they see their membership grow in diverse ways. These
performances address the concern about whether listeners are merely being
entertained or are engaged in learning about or preserving African American
When UNITY first started, I was often teased by the African
American members of my family about how bad a multi-cultural, multi-racial
gospel group would sound. The director has also joked that St. Peter will say
to her at heaven's door, "Oh, you're the one" (teaching gospel
cross-culturally). Other more serious concerns about the small percentage of
black members in the choir have often been answered by looking at the
relatively small size of the minority student population of Lesley's on campus
programs in Cambridge and Boston and the very busy lives of many students. But
I believe that Lesley's mission and its understanding of true multiculturalism
in a pluralistic society means that UNITY's purpose can not be solely to
support African American students on campus, but also to engage all people in
learning from inside cultures. I recently posed the above conservative view
that only black people can 'rightfully' sing gospel for discussion with Lesley
University 's chaplain, Nancy Richards. Her answer echoed Cornel West's (1994)
assertions that the cultural exclusivity promoted by some Afrocentrist writers
is a "…gallant, yet misguided attempt, to define an African identity in a white
society perceived to be hostile….out of fear of cultural hybridization…" (p.
4). In other words, as the chaplain noted, "Are we supposed to hide our
cultural gifts and keep them all to ourselves?" (N. Richards, personal
A black singer in UNITY commented to Sheri
Bedell that she was glad the choir did not look to her as the expert on this
style of singing (R. J., interview with Bedell, 1999). White students, and
others, for example, out homosexuals or Jews, who may accurately perceive
discrimination against them by some, more conservative Black Christians, have
asked me carefully, "Is the choir for everyone-is it all right if
I come?" Clarifying the open nature of the group means explaining that some
students will be having a cultural immersion experience and some students will
be 'going home' as singers in the choir.
It also means a stated
commitment to allow those for whom the choir is a new experience time to 'catch
up,' learning syncopation and minor chords if they've never sung them before.
This has extended to Threshold students who are accepted as singers on the
basis of their current musicality. A commitment was made by both the director
and the Threshold program to support Threshold students who were willing to
work on their basic musicality. At one point that included the Threshold
program finding voice lessons for a student who tried out for two semesters in
a row and didn't make it through auditions. With individual voice lessons, she
was able to sing the next term. Everyone in the choir cheered for her. It was
an affirming and powerful moment!
to work with learning disabled students, with classically trained graduate
level music therapists, with the Japanese students, as well as with members
familiar with the Black Church's gospel traditions, makes us unique among
Boston's college based choirs. UNITY fosters a transformative learning
experience where an African American cultural experience is seen as valuable
learning in and of itself, without reference to the mainstream or any other
cultural norms. The experience with UNITY truly demonstrates that
multi-cultural, feminist and anti-racist empowerment perspectives and engaged
pedagogy can exist even in co-curricular activities. The transformation gained
by members of the choir in their own lives is proof enough of the benefits of
struggle to honestly validate and honor the learning possible in truly
pluralistic academic settings.
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Multicultural Counseling and Development 19(1), 32-43.Return to the Journal of
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2004 Spring and Fall
2000 Fall/2001 Spring
The Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice
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Currently serving as the Division Director for Lesley's Undergraduate Psychology and Applied Therapies program, Dr. Katherine Barone has concentrated her scholarship on multi-cultural practice and research for trauma and recovery. Dr. Barone has also coordinated Lesley's campus gospel choir for over 15 years, and is an advocate for integrating music in talk therapy.
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