Draw me close to you: The Michigan Gospel Chorale

Wednesday, September 30, 2015 - 12:55pm

Around 7 p.m. in the Trotter Multicultural Center, the first few members of the Michigan Gospel Chorale (MGC) begin to arrive. One student heads directly to the piano and starts to play. More members enter as music fills the room, building an energy that’s warm and open to all who walk in. Excitement comes as each new person arrives at practice, bringing their own unique voice to the chorus.

“It’s very informal, you come and you’re welcomed into the group automatically, like people are really excited to meet new people, to bring them into the community, and I knew that it would be a big part of my time here,” said Phillip Hargrove, an Engineering graduate student and MGC assistant director.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Hargrove, along with LSA senior Lawrielle West, MGC president, Nursing junior Brianna Hawkins, MGC secretary and Shakia Jackson, Rackham graduate student and MGC adviser, emphasized the importance for him to find such a group when he first came to Michigan as a graduate student after completing his undergrad at Stanford University. 

“This was a big challenge for me, coming out to a region of the country where I don’t have any family,” Hargrove said, “I felt like I’d be out on my own so it was real important to connect to a community of other people who love God and are excited about God and enjoy the same kind of things I do in terms of that. That was how I got involved, just came in and it’s been a great part of my experience.”

The chorale, which originated in 1972 as the University of Michigan Black Gospel Choir, is a nonprofit organization that encompasses not just the choir but also several auxiliaries including a mime team, the dance oriented I.O.P (Images of Praise), the sign language group H.A.N.D.S (Hands Anointed ‘N Divine Signs) and the spoken word T.R.U.S.T (Taking Refuge Utter Spoken Truth). The diversity of performance types gives students several opportunities to express themselves.

“I feel that they cater to everyone,” Hawkins said, referencing the role of the auxiliaries, “Like at our concerts, so someone that’s deaf can’t hear our songs but they’re able to see the sign language. Or someone who enjoys hearing singing but when they see a dance, they’re moved by the dancing. It caters to everyone and gives an overall experience at our concerts.”

“One of the great things about MGC is that we don’t require auditions for any of our auxiliaries or our choir,” Jackson said. “So for people to become members they just have to show up and sing, mime, sign language or whatever they like to do. So when I joined MGC, I joined the day before a concert that we had, our College Night Concert, which occurs every January. I joined the night before and then over the night I learned the songs and got up there and sang with the choir the next day.”

Jackson, who has been with the chorale since her sophomore year as an undergraduate and calls herself the group mother, echoed Hargrove’s sentiment of belonging.

“The choir members were so welcoming to me. I felt I had a family, some people who did care about me, and though I was a new member I didn’t feel as though I was an outsider or that I wasn’t able to contribute to the organization or the ministry,” she said. “They completely welcomed me and made me feel as though I had a purpose here and I can be here and sing and do whatever it is I wanted to do and so that’s what really made me want to stick with MGC.”

Uniting many participants in MGC is their Christian faith, as practice begins and the piano music dies down, the members form a circle for prayer. Holding hands, they thank God for the opportunity to be together and use their gifts and share in their faith, a core idea behind the organization.

“I think the mission is just to spread the Gospel of God but also just the love of Gospel music, so you don’t even have to be religious or attached to a certain faith to enjoy Gospel music,” West said.

The interwoven nature between faith and Gospel music shows itself in nearly every aspect of the group as they warm up to the song, “Draw Me Close to You/ Thy Will be Done” by Pastor Marvin Winans.

“Thy will be done/ Lord in me/ In me/ Because I see you work in others and I want you to work in me,” the group sings as West takes on directing duties for the practice.

“Something I really appreciated about MGC was how the group is never afraid to tackle any song,” Hargrove said in regards to his experience singing for MGC. “I think I’m theoretically a better singer now than I was last year.”

As West guides the group through the popular Gospel song, “Even Me,” she stops and tells her fellow vocalists to sing out, to share their voice with God. West, who first came to the organization after receiving a direct message from MGC’s Twitter account inviting her to join, relates the words to faith, emphasizing the passion behind each verse, and the chorale responds accordingly.

“Lord, I hear of showers of blessings/ Thou art scattering full and free/ Showers of thirst souls refreshing/ Let some drops now fall on me.”

Helping MGC find this connection to their faith and each other is weekly Bible study.

“Once our spirit is out of whack everything is out of whack. Our songs don’t sound good, we arrive to things late, it’s kind of off. With the Bible studies it allows us to be on one accord about the things that we’re talking about,” Jackson said. “We’re focusing on a certain theme or certain scripture and through that we grow closer to one another 'cause we’re all in tune with God and that puts us all into it as a ministry. Without the Bible studies, without the actual spiritual part we are just an organization.”

The MGC isn’t just complacent in sharing their refined performances and belief within just the group, but also take part in an annual mission tour that takes them across the country where they perform and volunteer.

“Tour is during Spring Break, so we are already taking that commitment to not go party and go out. But to have this not only spiritual experience but this experience with people who love each other, we’re actually friends and this is such a great bonding experience. Once you go on tour, you’ll have memories for a lifetime,” West said.

“It’s amazing to go to like a church in Texas, where many of us don’t know the people at the church but we can all sing the same songs and the same worship experience,” Hawkins added about the tour that has had stops in states like Ohio, Kentucky and Florida, among others.

In addition to the tour, members of MGC finds themselves singing at churches and campus functions including Maize Night Madness and the Fireside Café on North Campus. The group also puts on performances at New Life Church, including their spring concert, which last year saw the choir unexpectedly perform without accompaniment when the musicians didn’t show up.

These local events form a presence within the community that allows MGC to serve another role. 

“I think it offers an outlet, a spiritual outlet,” Hawkins said. “I feel people come to our concerts and feel like they’re able to go to church if they don’t have a church home here. People come to us and can ask us for prayer and come to us and be like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s like I’m back at home.’ ”

As practice ends, the members gather around in prayer one last time. Before they leave they each give another a hug goodbye. There’s a bond among the chorale, joined together by talent and faith.

“That’s just the beginning of something great, feeling like you’re welcome into a community, they are not only OK with you being there but they want you there, they need you there,” West said.

With their first event this Sunday at Pastor Winan’s Perfecting Church, the group looks forward to spreading their message, as described by West.

“Gospel is based off faith and having a relationship with God, but also another part is being this inspiration movement — music to give you hope and faith to carry on. Every song we sing has meaning with us because a lot of us, not all of us, are Christians and so the songs we sing have meaning because it’s about God pulling us through or God’s going to pull us through or God has pulled us through.”