People from all walks of life and different backgrounds joined together in a blend of harmony inside Launer Auditorium the evening of Saturday, Feb. 11, as the Columbia College Unified Voices Gospel Choir debuted during the 2023 Choral Arts Alliance of Missouri Unity Concert.
“The energy in the room was seriously palpable,” says Music Professor Emily Edgington Andrews. “It was alive, amazing and really joyful. We had a full house, which was wonderful. There was so much diversity — everything from age, race to political affiliation.”
Edgington Andrews serves as the artistic director for CAAM in addition to her role as a CC Music faculty member.
The CC Unified Voices Gospel Choir, conducted by guest artist-in-residence Ronnie C. Wilson, performed three songs to culminate a four-week experience for its 25 inaugural members. They were joined in the combined concert by the Columbia Community Gospel Choir, the Columbia Kids Gospel Choir & Columbia Youth Choirs, and the University of Missouri’s Sankofa Chorale.
The eighth annual Unity Concert benefited the Columbia nonprofit Voluntary Action Center’s Opportunity Campus and thrilled an engaged crowd that recognized performers with multiple standing ovations.
The brand-new CC ensemble was comprised primarily of students but also included alumni and staff.
“We are building and developing our Music Program, and this is an opportunity to get more people singing,” Edgington Andrews says. “Singing is important and brings people together in a powerful way.”
The inaugural performance manifested a vision that began taking shape last semester as Edgington Andrews and fellow Music faculty newcomer Dr. Bryan Stenson started putting pieces into place. The historical precedent for such a campus choir, however, came just over five decades ago with the formation of the Children of God Gospel Choir.
The Children of God’s membership included the first Black students attending Columbia College in the early 1970s.
“The current members understand the magnitude of the Unified Voices Gospel Choir and their first performance thinking about their connection to the Children of God Gospel Choir,” Edgington Andrews says. “Here we are just over 50 years later … what role does this gospel choir play? Maybe it doesn’t look exactly the same, but in a way, there are similarities. We aim to create a community that can be a source of connectedness.”
“Once the students knew the history and the importance, their emotional investment was so much higher,” Stenson adds. “You’re standing on the shoulders of giants, and to be aware of it puts you a little more in awe.”
Ellen Miller-Mapp ’75, who resides in Atlanta, was one of several original Children of God members who watched the livestream of the concert, which was dedicated to the group.
Miller-Mapp says she was in heightened anticipation leading up to the concert and the choir delivered a special performance.
“Watching the choir take the stage, in so many ways, I was taken back to our Children of God concert in the spring of 1973,” Miller-Mapp says. “‘Oh Happy Day!’ I was filled with joy. And then, to hear those glorious voices singing from their hearts, I was full. Columbia College has a gem in this choir.”
Members of the Children of God visited campus in fall 2021 to celebrate their 50th anniversary, coinciding with the formation of an alumni group called CC Friends of the ’70s, which is comprised of the students who integrated CC. The group is committed to expanding opportunities for higher education among minority students.
Group members suggested the college try to recreate the connection they had with gospel music, a vision that was shared with and enthusiastically adopted by Edgington Andrews upon her arrival to CC this past fall.
“Fifty-one years ago, Columbia College welcomed its first Black students to campus, and those individuals came together and formed the Children of God Gospel Choir,” Edgington Andrews said in her opening remarks at the concert. “That created a safe community, a safe space for these students in a pretty tumultuous environment. Our performance is dedicated to those members who paved the way.”
Miller-Mapp says she looks forward to the day when the Children of God and Unified Voices can gather around the piano and sing together.
She says she was “deeply honored” that the performance was dedicated to the original choir members.
“This unselfish and unexpected gesture brought the legacy of the Children of God Choir truly to light,” she says.
The concert was meaningful not only to its audience but also to those who performed in the Unified Voices.
Molly Sparkes Boettcher, a student in the Evening Program, says her experience as a member of the choir was “warm, welcoming and exciting.” Sparkes Boettcher works full time and is a student full time, so the short-term evening rehearsal schedule made it realistic for her to participate, she says.
“This was my first time performing since my dad passed away 4 1/2 years ago, and I know he would have loved all of the joy and energy in the room,” Sparkes Boettcher says. “Seeing people from all over our community really reignited my love for this town and its people. I’m so glad I was able to be a part of it and to meet all the wonderful people I met along the way.”
Silvey, a Day Program student majoring in Music Education, described the ensemble as “an incredible time.”
“The highlight of the concert for me was the energy of the audience,” Silvey says. “In a classical choir concert, the expectation is to sit quietly and hold applause till the end. For a gospel concert, the audience is as much a part of the performance as the ensemble. It gave me chills to watch people singing, dancing and clapping along with us.”
The historical roots of the choir inspired the singers to be part of something bigger than themselves.
“We all came together around the camaraderie of reforming the past Children of God Choir,” says Unified Voices alumni member D’Markus Thomas-Brown ’15 ’17.
After spending the fall preparing for the launch of the new extra-curricular choral initiative, Edgington Andrews put out a call this winter to any members of the college community interested in joining the choir. The five rehearsals brought together experienced vocalists as well as those singing in a group setting for the first time.
Plans are being developed to continue the ensemble, which is sponsored by the Visual Arts and Music Department and supported by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Advancement Division.
“We very much want the feedback of the singers,” Edgington Andrews says. “We intend to do this more.”
The community-driven project has rallied around the phrase “unity in the community.”
“That’s really what it comes down to — creating an authentic experience that isn’t performative but is truly experiential,” Stenson says. “In those rehearsals and in that performance, you really started to get the sense that these initiatives facilitate integration with the community and make Columbia College a place not just for our students but for the people of Columbia.”