“Light of the world, You stepped down into darkness. Opened my eyes, let me see; Beauty that made this heart adore You; Hope a life spent with You.” These are the lyrics of “Here I Am to Worship,” a song written by Tim Hughes and covered by Israel and New Breed. It is typically sung in churches as a way of showing praise and worship. It was performed two years ago by Swarthmore’s Gospel Choir.
According to Carolyn Maughan ’12, who sings alto and served as the choir’s president during her sophomore year, “Here I Am to Worship” expresses the message of salvation, gratitude and admiration. “The song is telling God that we worship Him, that we are available to Him, and that we acknowledge His sovereignty,” Maughan said.
The Swarthmore Gospel Choir, founded by ten students in 1971, is one of the student groups that represent the culture of the black community at Swarthmore. According to the description of the choir on the college website, the Gospel Choir “serves as a spiritual uplift, a cultural identification, and a special outlet for black students at Swarthmore.”
The choir puts on performances regularly throughout the year, including an alumni performance in the spring. The choir held its first interest meeting this past Monday evening at 7 p.m. in the BCC and the members began preparing for this semester’s choir performance and making plans for the alumni choir show this April. Alan A. Symonette ’76, the president of Swarthmore College alumni association, and Barbara Haddad Ryan ’59, the associate vice president for external affairs, wrote for the introductory board of the Alumni Gospel Choir on the wall of the Black Cultural Center: “[The choir] has inspired audiences in Philadelphia, New York City, Connecticut, Washington, D.C. and the US Virgin Islands. Its success testifies to the members’ commitment to each other and celebrates African-American cultural identity.”
“It is a proud tradition of the college,” Karlene Burrell-McRae, assistant dean and director of the Black Cultural Center, said. She emphasized the importance of having and maintaining the choir on campus, saying that “the students think having a gospel choir is important because it’s a part of who they are; it’s a part of their culture.” Burrell-MacRae added that the Gospel Choir serves as an opportunity for students to have home feel just a little bit closer.
Briani George ‘15 agreed. Having had the experience of singing in a choir since she was three, George said that leaving home and being in college has made her want to have that experience again.” For Kafui Dzaka ‘15, another member of the choir who also performs in the male a capella group Sixteen Feet, it is also a continuation of previous high school choir and musical performance experience.
Gospel music is an expression of Christian life. The music can describe personal feelings during worship, spiritual ceremonies or depict communal belief at large. Praise, worship and gratefulness to God, Christ or the Holy Spirit are constant themes for most gospel music.
According to Rayshawn Davidson, the Gospel Choir director, the group specializes in a kind of contemporary and urban music that can speak to pretty much anybody who is Christian.
“Gospel music is Christian music. It is for anybody who believes that our Savior Jesus Christ died for our sins and his Father God will come back one day and take us away from this earth,” he said. Davidson believes God sees that people are sinful but will forgive anyone who confesses his or her sin. “We need His help in order to become better people because no one is perfect. Some people may look perfect, like on TV, you see people who are celebrities,” he said. “They look really good but they are not perfect. Everybody is imperfect in their minds or in their souls.”
However, at Swarthmore, the Gospel Choir is not just a traditional group solely for Christians, but for any singer who is willing to share his or her voice. For those who don’t have any religious preference, Davidson suggests they can also join in the choir to make their voice heard. “If someone has a voice and also likes to sing or to sing as a group, he or she should just use the voice to sing. If you have a voice, it’s better to use it than to just keep it.”
The biggest challenge the choir faces right now, according to Burrell-McRae, is to pick up from the past and to restart because the choir has become smaller and smaller over time. Holding rehearsal on every Monday at 8 p.m. in the BCC this semester, the choir welcomes anybody who is interested in being a part of the group.
Both Symonette and Ryan believe that the “Gospel Choir’s performances on campus remind all of us of the many ways that both students and alumni can enrich the entire College community.”