Singing Through It All

The life and influence of Wheaton’s beloved Gospel Choir director

By Haleigh Olthof | Staff Writer
April 29, 2021
Tanya Egler, Wheaton College Gospel Choir director. Photo: Amber Smith.

As a five year old singing with aunts and uncles around her grandmother’s piano, Tanya Egler, then Tanya McMickens, did not know her family’s pastime of worshipping the Lord together was training her for a career as Wheaton College’s Gospel Choir director. Her family sang at church in Cleveland, where Egler’s grandfather was a pastor. They rehearsed regularly for performances at other local churches, as well as at her grandparents’ former church in Indianapolis.

 

“If we didn’t have a concert, we would still get around the piano and worship the Lord because we loved blending our voices together,” said Egler. “[Singing] was a part of life for me.”

 

Egler continued to sing in her church choir into adulthood, but she did not plan to make it her vocation. Egler earned a degree in Early Childhood Education from Kent State University in Ohio, hoping to someday open her own daycare. The summer after her graduation, she met her husband, Calvin Egler ‘95, at a Christian retreat at Salt Fork State Park in Ohio. They married four months later. For the next ten years, Egler taught kindergarten while running the youth ministry at Good Shepherd Baptist Church in Cleveland with her husband, who was a minister on staff.

 

One of their youth group students was Jenai Jenkins, then Jenai Davis, a Wheaton Conservatory student. Jenkins was one of the eight Black students who founded and led Wheaton College’s gospel choir in 1986.

 

“Students who grew up listening to gospel music in church and enjoying that as a part of their culture and their history felt the lack of gospel worship at Wheaton,” Egler said, “so they got together around a piano in one of the dorms and started singing and they invited their friends.”

 

The choir became an official student organization in 1987. For their first tour, in 1990, Jenkins organized a concert at Good Shepherd Baptist. The themed concert was called “Black History Month at the White House.” Ushers dressed as Secret Service agents—replete with earpieces, sunglasses and gloves—greeted attendees at the door. The program commemorated African American historical figures. This was where Egler met Office of Multicultural Development (OMD) Director Rodney Sisco ‘84 and his wife, Hasana Sisco ‘86, who were on tour with the choir as faculty advisors along with psychology professor Darlene Hannah. In addition to the gospel choir’s performance, Egler led the church choir in a song called “When All God’s Children Get Together,” which she would later teach to the Gospel Choir.

The Wheaton College Gospel Choir performs. Photo: Amber Smith.

Because Egler’s husband was applying to bachelor’s programs at the time, he was drawn to a recruiting table the Gospel Choir set up at the concert. There, he talked with the Siscos and decided to apply to Wheaton. After his acceptance, Tanya received a call from Rodney Sisco. The students who had formed the choir were seniors and the choir’s advisors were looking for a director who knew gospel music and its culture to continue leading after the students graduated. Sisco offered Egler the position, which she accepted enthusiastically. She had hoped to sing in the gospel choir while her husband was attending Wheaton, but she had not dreamed she would get to direct it and receive a stipend.

 

In August 1990, she moved with her husband and three children from Cleveland to a small college-owned house at 810 College Ave. The house, sandwiched between two apartment complexes, has since been torn down. The Eglers’ children often climbed through the fence behind the house to play on the football field and Tanya Egler walked on the track in the mornings for exercise. The little white house could not hold all their belongings, so they had garage sales. They sold their king size waterbed to a student and slept on an air mattress for two years before becoming apartment directors at Terrace in 1992.

 

The first year Egler was on staff, to her surprise, the choir grew from 33 students to 90. Egler had never been a director before, although she had sometimes led songs for Good Shepherd Baptist. She had also never used sheet music. She still runs choir rehearsals orally.

 

“I had on-the-job training. The Lord let me jump in with both feet,” said Egler, who has now been leading Wheaton’s gospel choir for 31 years. She said the most rewarding part of her job was relating to students and “learning to see the world through the eyes of so many other people.”

 

After Calvin graduated with his degree in Bible and Theological Studies in 1995, the Eglers moved to Glenwood School for Boys in St. Charles, a residential school where they were house parents to 12 grade school or high school boys each year for the next 15 years while Calvin preached at local churches and Tanya continued working part-time as choir director. 

 

When Glenwood students went home to their families on the weekend, the Eglers invited Wheaton gospel choir members over. At the beginning of each school year, they hosted a gospel choir retreat featuring student-cooked meals and guest speakers. Egler invited mentors who had trained her in gospel music to share about its culture and history. Local ministers who were the choir’s prayer partners served communion. The group prayed, worshipped and determined their vision for the year.

 

The relationships formed on those retreats continued throughout the year. “It turned into family,” Egler said. If a student needed a ride to Target, Egler would drive. If a student wanted to get off campus for a weekend, Egler’s door was open. Calvin welcomed students as long as they kept their feet off his coffee table.

Tanya Egler leads the Gospel Choir in an outdoor performance. Photo: Mary Kathryn Daigle.

He became the choir’s honorary chaplain, mentoring the student chaplain each year and touring with the choir. On bus rides, he often encouraged the group with scripture and had them repeat after him a chant adapted from Neil Anderson’s book Victory Over the Darkness: “I am secure in Christ! I am accepted in Christ! I am significant in Christ!” His encouragement was often needed in a long, tiresome week of traveling. 

 

Some tours have been especially challenging. In 1995, the choir flew to California and toured amidst mudslides and earthquakes. One day, their bus broke down, and choir members stood around it in the rain, praying over the engine. The engine did not restart, but a new bus came after two hours to transport the group to their next stop.

 

On a 2007 tour, again in California, the group faced internal conflict. Ironically, Egler had dubbed that year’s trip the “Tour of Reconciliation.” 

 

“We were singing a lot of songs about diversity,” said Egler. “I thought, let’s encourage people, if there are places that need reconciliation in their communities, to reconcile with [their] brother.” But halfway through the week, the group was fracturing. Egler had invited gospel choir alumni who toured with the group as musicians, as well as her brother and another adult chaperone. Egler, who was raised in a Black culture where people show extra respect for those older than them, expected gospel choir students, especially cabinet members, to help the adult tour staff carry and set up instruments. For part of the tour, the students were staying in dorms at Pepperdine University while the tour staff and Egler stayed in a house with Andrea Scott, a current member of the Wheaton Board of Trustees who was a Pepperdine professor at the time. Egler asked cabinet members to bring breakfast cereal from the dining hall for tour staff when the bus from Scott’s house was running late. Cabinet members did not take these requests as seriously as Egler had hoped, which led to conflict.

 

“We spent a lot of time in family circle, talking through it until we worked it out,” said Egler. Each student and tour staff member had the opportunity to speak, the cabinet members apologized, and the group prayed together. “We came out of it loving each other,” Egler said.

 

Since that trip, Egler also learned to set boundaries with students in how they address her. “In my culture, when you’re older, people respect you and don’t call you by your first name,” Egler said. “I came here when I was around thirty and I didn’t think I needed to be called Mrs. Egler. I said, just call me Tanya. Over the years, I’ve become Ms. Tanya, and we get along a whole lot better now because I realized the most effective way to communicate and be clear on my expectations.” 

 

Egler has also grown in her confidence in the role. “I’ve learned how to appreciate the gifts God has given me and not feel like I’m missing out on something because I didn’t learn how to read music,” Egler said. “As long as I am giving my gifts back to the Lord, he uses them to his glory.”

Tanya Egler and Gospel Choir member Mikayla McIlrath. Photo: Amber Smith.

She led the choir five years later to perform in Verizon’s How Sweet the Sound 2012 Chicago regional competition. The choir placed in the top six and performed at the United Center. Egler was the only female director and Wheaton’s was the only multiethnic choir.

 

In May 2017, just after the school year’s end, the choir toured South Korea, joining the Heritage Mass Choir of Korea in performances at schools and churches. Stephen Lee ‘18 was Gospel Choir president that year. He had wanted to take the choir on tour to his home country since he was a freshman. Lee had visited churches and made connections to help orchestrate the tour which entailed ten concerts over the course of two weeks.

 

The choir has been a gift to Egler, especially in hard times. In December 2015, after a long battle with glioblastoma, Calvin passed away. The Chaplain’s Office held a “homegoing” service in Barrows Auditorium, where Calvin had spent hours with the choir during rehearsals.

 

“Those students [in the choir] were really there for us,” Egler said. “They held us up.” The students on choir cabinet that year decided to tour in the Chicago area in the spring after Calvin passed so Egler could stay close to family instead of travel.

 

Two years later, in 2017, Egler was considering leaving her part-time role as choir director to look for a full time position, ideally one where she could use her degree in early childhood education.

 

“With one income, things were different,” Egler said. She wrote a letter to Sisco notifying him but never sent it: “Before I pressed send, he called me and said, ‘Tanya, the college wants to offer you a full-time position.’ I said, ‘Wow, I guess this is a divine appointment.’” 

 

There was extra money in the budget for Student Development and Student Development Vice President Paul Chelsen immediately thought of Egler, who had at that point been directing the gospel choir for 27 years. The OMD tailored a role for Egler as both gospel choir director and OMD program assistant, a hospitality role to students who visit the OMD office in Lower Beamer. She also assists other OMD groups — Koinonia, Unidad and the William Osborne Society — with event planning.

 

Egler’s personal OMD office quickly became one more space where she connected with students. Some practically lived on her couch and students often played Wii games on the TV mounted on the wall next to her desk.

 

In June 2018, gospel artist Ron Kenoly performed at North Central College in Naperville alongside the Siscos, Egler, members of the Caribbean family network and select members of the Gospel Choir. During the performance, Egler noticed Rodney Sisco lean against his chair for support. He had been diagnosed with cancer that month and his strength was deteriorating quickly. Sisco passed away later that year, on December 30, Egler’s birthday.  Several choir alumni traveled back to Wheaton to attend Sisco’s homegoing service at College Church.

The Wheaton College Gospel Choir performs outdoors on the Quad. Photo: Mary Kathryn Daigle.

The alumni joined the current gospel choir members in singing “I Don’t Believe He Brought Me This Far To Leave Me,” the song Egler had often sung to Sisco while he was in the hospital. The gospel choir performed at his posthumous alumni award ceremony in 2019. Professor of Music Johann Buis stepped in as the choir’s new advisor, and David Cho became OMD director in the fall of 2019. 

 

The choir endured another difficulty when COVID-19 hit. The choir was on tour in Honolulu for spring break in 2020 when students received the email that Wheaton would switch to remote learning and send students home. On the drive to a restaurant for lunch, the announcement shocked some students into silence and others into tears. Cabinet member Sarah Kwan, whose family lives in China, knew she would not be able to go home. She remembers breaking down in Egler’s arms when she got out of the van. After lunch, the choir had a private worship session at the hotel where they were staying.

 

“People were crying. It was raw,” Kwan said. Nevertheless, the choir performed as scheduled that night. “We were all tired and emotionally drained, but it was still a good performance,” Kwan said.

COVID-19 precautions have changed rehearsals and performances drastically this year. The choir has rehearsed outside as much as possible, occasionally having to seek shelter from rain and wind. Instead of going off campus for their annual retreat in the fall, the group watched speakers on Zoom and gathered around a campfire in the grassy area between Adams Hall and the Memorial Student Center.

 

Yet even with the challenges of COVID-19, Egler continues to inspire and care for her students.

 

“Her spirit is unshaken during a time when people’s souls are shaken,” Kwan said. “It has really helped me during this COVID-19 time to see someone whose faith is that consistent. [It reminds me that] God doesn’t change and God is working even if we don’t see it.”

 

Sophomore English education major Christina Castro, who joined the choir this year, said, “[Egler] has a unique way of creating an environment that is comfortable yet structured. She dedicates time for precision yet also fosters a love for music and she pulls together students from different musical backgrounds and skill sets.” Egler regularly texts students individually or in the choir’s group chat, encouraging them and reminding them she is praying for them. 

 

Every rehearsal begins and ends with prayer, which Castro described as “integral to what happens at gospel choir.” After six women of Asian descent were killed in the March 16 shootings in Atlanta, the choir took rehearsal time to pray together and hear from Asian American women choir members who shared how the attacks had affected them and their communities.

 

In addition to sharing each other’s pain, the choir has shared moments of joy this year. They received permission from the COVID-19 response team to record their Christmas and spring concerts at Naperville Calvary Church. Students donned choir robes and Egler ordered clear masks for the choir members.

 

“For some of them, it was the first time I saw their faces and smiles,” Egler said.

 

“What shaped that experience was the gratitude in all the students,” said Castro. “This was an experience none of us expected to be made possible.”

 

The choir’s spring concert will debut May 1 on YouTube. It includes a segment commemorating Rodney Sisco and Calvin Egler. Tanya Egler also looks forward to inviting alumni and local pastors to the choir’s 35th anniversary celebration, planned to take place in person on April 30, 2022.

 

“As long as the world is open again and we’re all safe, I’m looking forward to a good celebration,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Miss Tanya stayed with Crystal Cartwright at Pepperdine University, but it was actually Andrea Scott, not Crystal Cartwright.

Wheaton College, IL

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