Building Bridges Between Chapel and the Conservatory

The son of a preacher and an organ player, Wheaton’s new chaplain for worship arts always knew his life would bring together music and ministry.

By Haleigh Olthof | Freelance Contributor
December 8, 2020
Wheaton's Chaplain of Worship Arts Donté Ford. Photo: Donté Ford.

Are we good to go?” Donté Ford calls to the IT team perched in the balcony of Edman Chapel. It is 10 a.m. on a Friday, forty minutes before chapel begins. Ford has been here since 9:15 a.m., rehearsing with four Conservatory students — three vocalists and a guitarist — who make up the rest of the morning’s ensemble.


Ford sits on the edge of the stage. Under his suit jacket, his dress shirt’s red, green and yellow detailing matches his bright red socks and the yellow letters on his “WOKE TO WORK” mask from the Office of Multicultural Development. Ford holds up his hands to signal for silence. Then his rich baritone fills the chapel. “My soul is at rest in God,” he sings.  “My salvation comes from God.”


Ford, Wheaton’s new associate chaplain for worship arts, has been singing in sanctuaries for as long as he can remember. His mother is a church organist. His father is a Pentecostal pastor. Several family members, including his three younger brothers, are now either professional or casual musicians.  “Many who don’t do music end up preaching,” he told me, “so I’ve got the best of both worlds.”


This year, in addition to planning chapels, leading worship and training student worship leaders, Ford, who is also an assistant professor of music, is pioneering new collaborations between the Conservatory and the Chaplain’s Office.


Traditionally, contemporary worship music, with its pop-inspired chord progressions, hasn’t squared with the concertos taught and performed in the Conservatory, which focuses on the classical repertoire.


“There is, in most Christian colleges, a big divide between the school of music and the Chaplain’s Office,” said Interim Chaplain Greg Waybright. Ford aims to change that by encouraging Conservatory students to help lead chapel worship and by making room in the Conservatory for student worship leaders, whether or not they’re music majors. 


He teaches a two-part Principles of Worship course as part of Wheaton’s new Worship Arts certificate, which is open to any Wheaton student, even non-music majors. “Even if they’re not Conservatory students, [worship leaders] are musicians, training to be the most skillful leaders they can possibly be,” said Ford. “I will try to open up bridges to allow my Conservatory colleagues to interact with these students and train them.”


Ford’s concern for bringing together disparate styles and traditions flows from his own experience and education as a musician. Growing up in Philadelphia, he played drums and tuba in the Kimmel Center Youth Jazz Ensemble.


But his first formative musical experiences took place at United Evangelist Church II, a Pentecostal congregation where his father ran the youth ministry and his mother played the organ. Each Sunday, the choir would march into the small sanctuary, singing, “This is the Lord’s church, and Jesus is Lord.” When he was six, the choir added a red TKO drum set into the mix. “Like every other kid in the church,” Ford said, “I was like, ‘Oh, I wanna play! I wanna play!’ That’s what kids want to do: bang on drums.”


His mother finally gave in mid-service one Sunday, when he was standing next to her at the organ begging to play. “She said, ‘Fine, go ahead,’ and in the middle of the service I just got on the drums and started playing,” Ford said. “I’ve been playing in church ever since.”

Ford was completing early coursework for his PhD in musicology from the University of Arizona (which he’s about halfway through now) when he came across a job description for the associate chaplain of worship arts at Wheaton. It was a new position, created with the idea of a musician-scholar in mind.


“Three or four years ago, Chaplain Blackmon had a strong sense that it would be helpful to have an assistant Chaplain to help with music,” said Conservatory Dean Michael Wilder, who helped Blackmon shape the role. “We envisioned a way that this position might be the Assistant Chaplain position, but also a faculty position.”


Ford was intrigued. The position would allow him to teach, make music, and do ministry. “This would be great,” he said he thought at the time, “but they’re not going to hire me for this job because I don’t have my doctorate yet. After about a week I just couldn’t drop it, so I decided to go ahead and apply.” 


Ford’s bold decision was the culmination of the journey he’d been on for years. In 2007, Ford’s family had left their church in Philly so that his father could plant a church called Christian Fellowship Community Church. “When my dad started pastoring, I noticed more of what it took to do church ministry and leadership,” he said.


A week before leaving for college at Pennsylvania State University (PSU), Ford was licensed as a minister by his father. The licensing process — which included an examination of his character, Christian witness, service to the church and interaction with fellow parishioners — culminated in a trial sermon. 


Ford preached on Matthew 16, where Jesus asks his followers who they think he is. “The title,” Ford recalled, “was ‘Who Do You Say That He Is?’ and the impetus behind that was: How do we say who God is or who Christ is by the way that we live?”


Ford continued to pursue ministry. While studying for his Bachelor of Arts in music with a focus on tuba, he worked at a local Black church and played piano in the gospel choir, which he would go on to lead. On campus, Ford sought mentorship from Anthony Leach, Penn State’s choir director at the time. “There weren’t many African-American professors in the music department,” he said, “so I wanted to go see him and introduce myself. We realized some similarities in our background—we’re both preachers’ kids.”


Leach coached Ford in piano and pipe organ. Ford attended Leach’s choir rehearsals and eventually became his accompanist and assistant conductor, even composing choral arrangements at Leach’s request. “He always encouraged me,” Ford said.”He would say things like, ‘I’m trying to prepare you for where you are growing. I’m not just looking at where you are now, I’m trying to prepare you for where you’re headed.’ That’s a mentality I try to take with my students.”


Leach influenced Ford’s decision to pursue choral conducting in graduate school, though he’d been planning an instrumental route. With his minimal choir experience, however, Ford knew it would be difficult to get accepted into a master’s choral conducting program. Instead, he decided to study sacred music, which traditionally involved choral conducting and would allow him to study both theology and music. 


After four years at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, he graduated with three master’s degrees in sacred music, divinity and choral conducting, all the while leading worship at First Baptist Church of Hamilton Park. In the classroom and the sanctuary, Ford continued to combine his musical influences. By the time he left Dallas for the University of Arizona, he had organized his voice colleagues from SMU to start Sankofa Chorale, a group that blends African American choral music with the classical repertoire.


Michael Wilder said that out of nearly 100 applicants for the assistant chaplain position, Ford stood out. “He is theologically grounded in some amazing ways, and he’s an affable person with a beautiful personality and a can-do spirit,” Wilder said.


Ford traveled to Wheaton for an interview in November 2019 and learned he’d been hired on his last day of fall semester classes at the University of Arizona. He coordinated with Blackmon, Wheaton’s chaplain at the time, to find time during his visit to oversee chapel band auditions. That week, Ford was spontaneously introduced to campus at a chapel. 


Ever style-conscious, Ford, who wore a purple velvet suit jacket with matching tie and handkerchief the day I visited his class, said he would have packed an extra tie had he known about the introduction.

It wasn’t until July that Ford and Waybright could begin planning this fall’s chapels following Chaplain Blackmon’s dismissal. “Because of the changes that happened in the Chaplain’s Office,” said Waybright, “we just had to roll up our sleeves and go at it. We didn’t know what we were going to do for chapel this year when we met and started planning.”


“I wasn’t worried about [getting a late start],” said Ford. “With the various church experiences I had [leading worship], I didn’t always know what the sermons were before the service, so I’m used to that kind of on-the-fly, low-level planning.”


What he wasn’t used to was leading chapel during a pandemic. In a regular semester, thousands of students pack into Edman three mornings a week to sing, read scripture and hear from speakers. But as a result of COVID-19, Wednesday and Friday chapels have been live-streamed this semester. No more than ten people at a time have been present on the main floor of the auditorium. On-stage, as in the classroom, speakers and musicians have sported masks and situated themselves several feet apart. Instead of Monday chapels, students have been meeting in Life Together Groups to read the Psalms and pray.


Ford has rolled with the new structure even as he has begun to explore his various roles on campus. On a given day, Ford might teach, visit a chapel band practice, plan chapels, facilitate chapel logistics and spend time in the OMD. He takes time each day to check in with the students he works with. “Music ministry is a ministry, so having a pastoral awareness — caring for people as souls — is part of how I approach it,” he said.


He’s connected especially with chapel band leaders and the students in his Worship Arts course. He also works closely with senior Maggie Akinleye, who serves as student chaplain of worship, discussing visions for Wheaton’s worship and talking through event logistics in weekly meetings.


Akinleye said Ford “makes himself available to me and to chapel band leaders and wants to know, most importantly, who we are as people. He always asks, ‘How is it with your soul?’ because he wants to know how we’re actually doing, not just the work we’re doing.”


It was Ford’s relational approach that solidified senior piano pedagogy major Sara Beth Thomas’s decision to audition for her chapel band leader position this year. She met him at a lecture he gave while on campus last fall for his interview. After the lecture, Ford stayed to chat with students.


“He was like, ‘Hey, you like jazz piano. Let’s go play piano,’” said Thomas. “He just sat down and started playing, and then he asked me to play something. I felt like he made a point to connect with me on that because he knew I loved jazz.”


Thomas said that last year when she played piano in a chapel band, “there was a greater responsibility on the teams for planning a lot of logistical things that I think pulls attention away from just practicing and being ready. [Ford] does a lot of the background work of organizing where we’re going to play and the direction of the service.”


Akinleye said Ford is training her to be a “worship architect” when planning worship services. “We build the house, but then when we are in the moment doing [worship], the Holy Spirit comes in and inhabits it and decorates it and does what he will in the service,” said Akinleye. “But we have done all that we can to lay the groundwork.”


Ford’s Pentacostal background—he currently attends New Generation Church of God in Christ in Oaklawn—has instilled in him a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit and a focus on personal piety. “What [early Black Pentecostals] did not have in finances, they had in a relationship with God,” he said. “I carry that even as an intellectual because I believe no matter how smart you get, if you don’t have that connection, if you don’t feel God moving [in a worship service], you’ve missed it.” 


Ford says he hopes to unite Wheaton community members of various ethnicities and backgrounds in worship that embraces many styles, sounds, and traditions. 


It’s a task he seems uniquely suited to achieve. “I want to promote a program that continues to affirm the intrinsic value in beauty and its place in worship,” he said. “We’re doing music for the Lord, so we should do like Psalm 33 says: play skillfully.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the principal timpanist of the Philadelphia Orchestra was the director of the Kimmel Center Jazz Ensemble, but he was in fact the director of the All-City Orchestra, not the Kimmel Center Jazz Ensemble.

Wheaton College, IL

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