TURLOCK, CA (June 15, 2018) — It was an unlikely beginning for a gospel choir—15 white adults ranging in age from 50 to 85 at a historic Covenant church in California’s rural Central Valley led by a new worship director from Sweden.
But in the past two years, the Turlock Community Gospel Choir has grown to include 55 people from 10 area congregations with members ranging in age from 12 to 86.
Thomas Simonsson started the choir shortly after he started serving as director of worship at Turlock Covenant Church in June 2016. The church was 114 years old at the time.
The number of people singing in the traditional choir was declining as members aged, and like many other congregations, the church had been unable to attract new choir members.
Simonsson thought gospel could change lives.
Gospel music has a particular power, Simonsson says. “The musical style was born out of the tremendous tragedy of slavery in the US and has been the origin of many of our musical genres of today,” he explains. “Although slavery no longer exists in the US today, the gospel songs keep moving us to reflect, lament, and rejoice through the circumstances of this world.”
It was gospel music—especially Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord”—that sustained Simonsson when his wife’s heart gave out one week before she was due to give birth. Both she and the baby died. Because gospel had so moved him, he believed others would experience that impact as well. As a student at North Park University in 2013, he organized a gospel music tour through Sweden by a four-person group that included two fellow students and a friend. It was a huge success.
Getting the choir launched was difficult. The Covenant church’s choir formed the core and although Simonsson had invited other churches to participate, none of them showed interest.
The choir members had to learn to sing new, unfamiliar music. They had always sung with printed music in their hands, so Simonsson began writing out three-part harmonies for them. He sends CDs of the songs home with choir members to help them learn new pieces.
Today, they use a mix of just words and printed harmonies. “People say they experience and hear music differently now,” Simonsson says.
The choir’s first concert was in December of 2016, which attracted roughly 400 people.
The concert helped draw the attention of other singers in the community who wanted to participate. “It’s a come-as-you-are choir,” Simonsson says. Members don’t have to know how to read music or even be particularly good singers. They just have to show the desire and commit to participate.
Since that first performance, the choir has given two major concerts a year. Simonsson has brought in guest conductors, Terrance Smith, program and musical director for the Oakdale Christian Academy Choir, a 100-voice world-touring choir in Chicago that has performed with Jennifer Hudson and Common.
After the first season, Simonsson told his pastor, Steve Carlson, that he wished the church had a Hammond B3 organ, a fixture of gospel music. Simonsson was living in churched-owned housing at the time, and Carlson replied, “I think we do, and it’s in your garage.” It just needed some restoration work.
Because gospel had so moved him, he believed others would experience that impact as well.
Not only has the choir includes African American members as well as other from South America. One of the members is improving her English skills through participating. It also has helped to connect people with different churches, It also has introduced other congregations to the Covenant. A nondenominational congregation, New Hope Community Church, is now exploring the possibility of joining the denomination. Also worth noting is that we have several ethnicities represented, African American, South American in the choir now,
And the gospel is spreading.
Pine Lake Covenant Church in Samammish, Washington, hadn’t had a choir of any kind for at least five years, but JD Brenke, the congregation’s new director of worship ministries noticed Simonsson talking about the choir on Facebook. He decided to try something similar and turned to Simonsson for advice.
The Pine Lake choir, which was formed last September, is scheduled to give their first concert on Saturday.
Like the Turlock choir, the Pine Lakes group has started with a small group (22 people), all of whom are white.
Unlike Simonsson, Brenke deliberately started the choir with primarily church members. “Year one for us is about building a culture and seeing if it will stick,” he explains.
The culture is one of vulnerability. “Gospel is authentic, coming from place of vulnerability,” Brenke says, adding, “To sing with vulnerability, you have to practice vulnerability.” To encourage that stance, rehearsal includes times for people to share high and low experiences in their lives. They also sit in a circle during rehearsals so that they are singing to each other.
Like Simonsson, Brenke says the choir sings music with a broad range of difficulty. He noted, for example, that Kirk Franklin’s music is challenging. “I’m not compromising musical excellence,” he adds.
Brenke is excited about the first performance, which will include a guest gospel artist, Scilla Onyee. Simonsson also is driving up from Turlock, and the two worship directors will meet for the first time.