The Wheaton College Concert Choir’s show last Friday wasn’t your typical choir performance. Not only did it include audience sing-a-longs and improv music, but it took place in the lofty gymnasium of Pacific Garden Mission — Chicago’s oldest and largest homeless shelter.
The concert — as well as each of the other stops during the choir’s weekend trip across Chicago — focused on interaction. Rather than simply performing, students engaged with the people of Chicago by singing spirituals with the residents at PGM, assisting high school students at Golder College Prep and leading worship at the congregation at Uptown Baptist Church.
If you ask John Trotter, conductor of Concert Choir and associate professor of music, about the purpose behind the trip, you won’t receive just one answer. He excitedly listed a host of reasons in rapid succession: service, evangelism, experiencing diversity in urban settings, teambuilding and pursuing musical excellence. This year marks the group’s second time on the trip, and sophomore Anjali Chudasama recalled last year’s go-round as “the concert we felt was the most important out of our whole year,” and added that “I think that happened again this year.”
A week before the 55 students boarded the Chicago-bound Metra, professor of anthropology Brian Howell advised the group — which included many students who grew up in a suburban context — about how to interact with people in the city. The group’s ten-person cabinet planned the itinerary; upon arrival, the students had a packed schedule, starting with the Pacific Garden Mission concert Friday evening.
Throughout the night, students sang spirituals and American folk songs arranged by Alice Parker including “This Little Light of Mine,” as well as other songs from their repertoire, like “Give Me Jesus,” a slower, more introspective piece. But students also needed to stay on their toes. Unlike a typical concert where they have a plan from start to finish, it was “kind of like improv,” senior Jennie Judd said. While Trotter started with a plan, he would change it depending on the situation. “Students have to sing solos with like 10 seconds warning in that kind of environment,” Trotter said. “It’s all very much according to the flow of things.”
Chudasama explained that, at a venue like Edman, “people are there to enjoy art and sometimes they’re there to worship, but it’s a very professional circumstance.” At PGM, Chudasama saw the music minister in both directions as many of the residents joined in. “It’s like we’re sharing our experience of the gospel,” she said, “and you could tell that the music was connecting with them.” Students also interacted with Chicago residents through conversation afterwards, which made their “presence there more personal,” said senior Grace McClusky, who serves as the choir’s chaplain.
One resident at PGM, David Ombugado, said that he loved hearing the choir last year and listens to recordings of their songs on his phone. Ombugado said that he found the students’ concert — which included music and personal stories that several students shared — encouraging, especially in light of his own experiences. “The testimony was awesome,” he told The Record.
Meanwhile, students expressed how they were affected by the residents’ own stories. Senior Dustin Northcutt, who is president of Concert Choir, said that his first trip with the choir to PGM “pointed out to me that I had a single narrative for the homeless.” He met a man who was “incredibly intelligent, driven and had a great education” and didn’t stop planning for what he hoped to do in the future. That encounter changed his view of homelessness, Northcutt said.
This year, Chudasama had a similar experience. She spoke with a lady living at the shelter who used to be a professional singer, toured Europe and even sang for a queen. She told Chudasama about the stereotypes many have of homelessness saying, “Everyone comes in here and expects everyone to be drug addicts. And they’re really just people who are like us and became really downtrodden in their lives.”
It’s also something Trotter emphasized to his students: The importance of viewing residents of PGM not as members of the “homeless” population, but as people. He told The Record that people tend to generalize the homeless population with labels like the “unfortunates” or “underprivileged” despite the fact that their experiences and outlooks differ widely.
While the concert at PGM facilitated many eye-opening interactions, it was only the first stop on the expedition. Saturday, the group set off on the “L” for Golder College Prep, where David Batdorf ’16 is starting the school’s first choir program from the ground up. Many of his 160 students had never heard a choir perform and tend to shy away from singing, Trotter explained.
To help the students experience a choir performance, each Concert Choir member stood with two high school students to join in and sing the piece. Batdorf said that “suddenly, it went from a beginner choir … only singing for six weeks to being a part of a really good college choir.” For Northcutt, getting to see the kids start to really enjoy the music was a highlight of the trip. Judd appreciated the chance to see Batdorf work with his students, saying that “it was really inspiring to see your fellow friend doing what he’s doing.”
For their last stop, the choir led worship for the congregation of Uptown Baptist Church on Sunday morning. The church has no racial majority, Trotter said, which makes it unlike many Wheaton-area churches. That allowed the students to see the diversity of the church “socioeconomically and racially and culturally, which we don’t always get at our concerts,” added McClusky.
This trip into the city is “extremely important in a holistic education for us as students … we’re getting out of a culture where we go to school and entering into something that may challenge us with more perspectives,” Northcutt said. It also allows students to take what they’ve learned in choir and studying music and put it to work through tangible service. Northcutt explained these experiences have helped to shift his view of Concert Choir over the years. He learned that it’s not just about earning credits or “singing pretty music,” but “serving the listener.”
“We find out by doing things like this that we don’t need to study for four years and get a degree before we can be useful,” Trotter said. Service isn’t something we “delay until our graduation date,” but happens “through the course of study.”