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Crossing racial and religious barriers, the Third Day Gospel Choir brings together a diverse community of both the devout and the curious.
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [05.10.10] A class at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon is something most students would avoid, right? Tell that to the 200 students who take Music 72: Gospel Choir, a for-credit course taught by David Coleman (G'01) that ends each semester with a packed performance in Cohen Auditorium.
The students say postponing their weekend plans for a few hours is worth every note.
"A lot of universities have gospel choirs, but the Tufts choir is very rare due to the fact that it is a course for credit," Coleman says. "Because of that, you find a lot of students sign up for it out of curiosity, and that lends to the diversity."
Started in the 1980s, the choir, more formally known as the Third Day Gospel Choir, has been under Coleman's wing since 2006. While many university choirs evolve from student organizations, Coleman says Third Day started and continues to be a course taught out of the music department. In addition to weekly in-class rehearsals and semester finale concerts, the group has performed on the road, most recently in 2008, when the singers toured the East Coast for four days.
Within the comfort zone of a structured course, Coleman says, many students come to class not sure of what to expect and come out with more than they could imagine. From Christians questioning their faith, to those without a single tie to God, students from all walks of life find themselves hooked by the experience, re-registering for the course semester after semester.
"Gospel choir is both African American and Christian in origin, but you don't have to be either to appreciate, understand or do it," says Coleman, who earned a master's degree in music composition from Tufts. "There is no doubt in my mind that at a school like Tufts, where politics and world service are at the heart of the curriculum, there is a hunger or a thirst for a spiritual connection," he says, "and people experience that in so many different ways."
For Vincient Booker (A'09, G'12), gospel choir was a way to reconnect to a spirituality he had lost in his youth.
At the age of seven, Booker was adamant about the things he wanted, and for him, there was nothing he wanted more than to sing in his church's gospel choir.
"They told me I needed to be a member, so I said, ‘Make me a member.' They told me told me I needed to be baptized; I said, ‘Just do it,' " he recalls. "The next week I went to the altar, and they asked me all these questions, like Baptists do, and I said, ‘Look, yes I know God, yes I sing to him every week, let's get going.' "
But by the time he turned 13, Booker says his relationship with God became "rocky," and it wasn't until he turned 19 that he knew he had to turn things around.
"I was in a bookstore. I didn't have any money. I think I only had about $50, and I bought a Bible that cost $44 and took it with me everywhere," he says. "That was my fall semester of my freshman year, the same time I heard the gospel choir for the first time, and I thought, ‘I have to do this.' "
Much like Booker, Ben Hampson (A'11) also grew up with religion: his parents ran a Baptist church out of their home. But by the time he arrived at Tufts, he found himself with more questions than answers when it came to his faith.
"I had been living lukewarm all the way up to college, and I had to make a decision on whether or not faith was going to be a part of my life," he says. "Hearing the gospel choir concert for the first time, the music really spoke to where I was coming from in life. It was talking about seeking and yearning for something greater, and maybe not quite finding it yet. That was a really powerful message for me."
Outside of the Christian faith, Rebecca Weinstein (A'10) was detached from the idea of God when she took the gospel choir course her sophomore year.
"I have decided that while I am culturally Jewish, as far as my religion goes, I am agnostic," Weinstein says. "But even though I am indifferent about God, I am still a spiritual person, and I feel the gospel mentality definitely provides a spiritual connection and a way to channel that."
A member of the 2010 Tufts President's Marathon Challenge team, Weinstein felt that spiritual connection during a training run, when the sounds of a gospel choir song on her iPod helped her power through the torturous Heartbreak Hill leg of the Boston course.
"It lifted my spirit, my energy and my legs to help me reach the top of the hill and run the final three miles," she says. "For me, gospel choir serves as a reminder that there is something greater than what I am dealing with, whether it be a job or a test, and it brings a unique perspective to campus, joining people of all different cultures and backgrounds [who are] embracing it and not feeling ostracized."
She adds, "That really speaks to the power of the music."
Walking into a classroom of 200 students in their late teens to early 20s had the potential of being isolating for Linda Vallis (A'10), who is earning her psychology degree through Tufts' Resumed Education for Adult Learners (REAL) program. Instead, it brought the older student closer to the Tufts community.
"David [Coleman] doesn't judge you or make you feel that if you're not a devout religious person you don't belong there. He wants everyone to be there," she says. "I'm sure he gets to those people too, in that spiritual way, but I have a feeling there have been many people who feel closer to something that they can believe in after being under his guidance."
The Power of Song
Having experienced the choir from both the stage and the audience, Booker says it's been amazing to watch the Third Day Gospel Choir grow from 60 members five years ago to more than 200 now, and to see the inspirational power it has had for himself and other African-American students at Tufts.
"For many generations, black churches have been the only social institutions where this aspect of black culture has been praised," he says. "So to have it celebrated on campus in this way and to have the group go on tours, it's not only a point of pride, but something to really celebrate about your own identity."
"You lose yourself in it," says Vallis. "You forget you could even get nervous, and the audience is whooping and yelling and singing along, clapping and dancing in the aisles. It's invigorating."
Linda Vallis(third from the left)
In Hampson's eyes, the community that the gospel choir has created at Tufts is unlike any other. "If you are looking for a definition of ‘community' at Tufts, I think gospel choir is one of the best examples of what it means to be a community," he says. "There is just a blend of so many different people, from so many different backgrounds, coming together for one purpose, with one voice."
Booker sums the experience up in one word: transformative. "You can really see the transformation gospel choir has made on campus," he says. "You hear people say, ‘I am this background, or I am that background, but I love the music,' and that is just cool."
While the singers say it's David Coleman's sincerity and teaching style that are the driving forces behind the course's popularity, Coleman credits a greater power: "I don't like to believe that people join because of me, because in truth it's something bigger than that. There is something happening here that is bigger than me."
Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications Photography and slideshow by Alonso Nichols, University Photography