“Free at Last!”
1. “Free at Last” — a well known Negro Spiritual.
2. “Free at Last” — even more famous for Martin Luther King’s use of it in one of his most powerful speeches.
3. “Free at Last” — sung by the Wisconsin Gospellers.
In our Gospeller gatherings, we talk often about the levels of coded messages and layers of meaning buried within the words of the pieces we sing. The white listeners who “owned” the singing slaves as property, would hear only one level of the message. Those singing and those compatriots listening, however, knew full well the deep coded messages hidden within.
On our trip down the Ohio River this summer, which included a day at the National Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Nancy and I learned that those who escaped, celebrated their release, but seldom told the details of that event. They only gave hints of the experience of the moment which was both terrifying and miraculous. Maybe that moment was just impossible to capture in words?
The 1,000 mile stretch of the Ohio river served as an absolute boundary between slave ownership to the South and free territory to the North. Nightly, signals would pass. A row boat would quietly leave an isolated area of the Northern shore and paddle through the fog to a designated location on the other side. A runaway slave would crawl and scratch to the shore, eluding the frightful lights of those looking for escapees (quite a lucrative occupation at the time!). For a moment, the breathing of both escapee and boatman would cease. A candle might be lit — the silent meeting in the midst of bugs, fog, night sounds, water lapping. The escapee would quickly wade into the water, slide into the boat, muddy and wet, fall to the bottom and be rowed to the Ohio’s North side — to freedom — freedom not without continued danger, but yes, FREEDOM!
We sing of that sacred moment when the dungeons shook and the earth in silent awe stood still holding the prospect of life and death together in the exact same instant — a moment too powerful for the mind to grasp.
I remember the day. I remember it well.
My dungeon shook and my chain fell off.
On my knees when the light passed by.
I thought my soul would rise and fly.
Thank God I’m free at last.
Thank God I’m free at last.
If we manage to sing these lines without tears,
We’re focused too much on the music and missing the message.
In rehearsal and in concert, we sing of a HOLY MOMENT–
the moment earth forces could not control —
when dungeons shook, and chains fell off,
when thunder crashed, and temple curtains tore —
a momenta too powerful for the mind to grasp.
When we sing with awe our soul is nourished,
we, too, know that freedom is ours.
By Don Tubesing | October 12, 2018
The Singing Windows of Tuskegee University
When Luke and I were traveling through Alabama last spring, we stopped in Tuskegee to take in the history of African American notables like Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and the Tuskegee Airman of World War II.
While on the campus of the Tuskegee University, we visited the chapel and were thrilled with the beauty and spirit of the “Singing Windows.” These windows portray “eleven beloved Negro spirituals,” according to the University web site. Many of these eleven songs are ones that we sing with the Wisconsin Gospellers.
Here I share three sections of the window. For a view of the entire window and more about its history, here is a link to the Tuskegee University web site: https://www.tuskegee.edu/about-us/chapel-history
By Lori Bocher | September 2018
Music Moves Us
Music speaks to us in different ways and helps us through many life situations. Also, music helps us during times of meditation at a specific time of the day – morning, afternoon, evening, prayer time. Our friends Carolyn Blair and, her husband, Blair Blair introduced the song “Total Praise” at the Gospellers September 2017 workshop at Pilgrim Center. The song has touched my heart and become a regular part of my night time closing prayers. The words and music help me center myself as I move into a time of prayer. I was also moved to write a bass part for the song “Total Praise” and use the bass part as part of my meditation time as well.
May music be a helpful transforming part of your life.
Total Praise by Richard Smallwood
Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills, Knowing my help is coming from You.
You are the source of my strength. You are the strength of my life,
A-men, A-men, A-men, A-men, A-men.
By David Wernecke | September 2018
We are all one body of Christ
A Poem from Kimberly
What did they sing on Saturday?
Soloman’s Song? A hollow tune.
Did someone don the teffilin?
The Talmud preaches exodus,
What filled long hours that holy day?
By Kimberly Redding | April 2018
How will the church look in today’s ever-changing and evolving society?
With technology and social media exponentially growing and evolving, the current generation no longer needs the church as a place to find community. People find community with like-minded people on Facebook, Instagram, and many other places. People easily keep in touch with their close friends and family via Facebook email, and cell phones. Few people reach out to churches the same way they used to to find community.
At the winter forum of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, Rev. Dwight Zscheile explained how we have to start to think of church in a different way in order to keep pace with the exponentially growing society. Society has moved from the age of mobilization (clubs, organizations, structured activities), to the age of authenticity (discovering one’s true self, self expression, etc). The church has to provide people with a place to be authentic and true to themselves. Church has to also be engaging and thought provoking.
As a member of the millennial generation, I can relate to the desire to be engaged and challenged, while remaining true to one’s self. How does this translate to the church? It means the church has to be more agile – meaning it has to get up and go out into the world to find people where they are being true to one’s self. We can’t expect people to “feel true to one’s self” by going into a church setting where they’ve most likely never been before.
The Wisconsin Gospellers is currently my new “church.” It is a singing group where I can be true to myself as well as challenge my faith, and explore what it means to believe in God. This church doesn’t necessarily have a building or necessarily have a set membership, but it has an identity. The identity of the Wisconsin Gospellers can be described by its mission statement: To bridge cultural divides and touch souls through the transformative power of gospel music. We are a living, breathing church.
Churches need to start being churches with an identity! It needs to have a deep understanding of itself. Therefore, for any church you may be part of, I highly recommend and encourage you to create or renew your mission statement to help find your identity. Once you have your identity, encourage your members to transform the mission statement from words on paper to a living and breathing movement of itself. Become an agile church!
By Alicia Gardner | March 2018
Wisconsin UCC Gospellers: Choir or Church?
Back in 2005, when Fritz West envisioned this choir, was he envisioning a different way of doing church? I know one of his main goals was to make connections between churches in Wisconsin and Germany. A dozen years later, as the Wisconsin Conference’s SHIFT initiative challenged congregations “do church” differently, we started to wonder if what we were doing was actually as much church as choir.
The UCC ShIft Initiative tells us this:
It may feel counter-intuitive, but God is calling the Church to a vision and a ministry beyond our buildings and budgets. God is calling us to the places where our Christian faith and the needs of the world intersect. At these crossroads, lives will be transformed as people from all walks of life work together for a more just and generous world.
So as we drafted governing documents for the Gospellers, we realized that we are really are doing more than just singing together. Our meeting time begins with a devotional led by the Gospellers’ chaplain. While we work on learning notes, our director explains historical and theological context, much as a pastor might do when reading scripture. Sometimes, we even discuss how these songs relate to current situations. Over a potluck lunch (loaves and fishes, anyone?), we enjoy fellowship and share joys and concerns. Several times a year, we connect with other choirs and congregations to develop understanding between cultures.
So it’s not really a surprise that our mission statement became:
To bridge cultural divides and touch souls through the transformative power of Gospel music.
And then it was just obvious. We weren’t just a choir, we were an official SHIFT ministry. Now, our members pledge to the Gospellers in the same way we pledge to our home congregations. Speaking for myself, the Gospellers meets my spiritual needs in a way that my regular Sunday morning congregation never could. Beyond being immersed in music that I love, I have the opportunity to practice Christian love and hospitality and build deeper understanding by living in another culture – even if only for a short time.
So, free up some time on the second Saturday of the month and come and see how we do church in the Wisconsin UCC Gospellers.
By Malena Koplin | January 24, 2018
Recently I retired from the Gospellers Leadership Team after serving six or seven years. I enjoyed working with this group of people and was especially fulfilled by doing Chaplain duties. Finding meditations that were appropriate, challenging, and fun was something I really liked doing. I will miss being part of the team, but look forward to new adventures and experiences with the Wisconsin Gospellers!
By Sue Loomer | January 12, 2018
The Gospellers as Church
Well, I did it. After over a year of thinking it, writing it and talking about it with other Gospellers, I stood at the lectern and told a sanctuary full of Sunday morning churchgoers, “The Gospellers are a 21st century church. We meet once a month. We find connection to God and one another through music, and we believe music can break down cultural, generational and class barriers. Come check us out.”
I’d only planned to make a quick, unscripted pitch for our next workshop. Instead, I just blurted out what I wanted people to know: to me, this choir is not just a community ensemble. It’s a vibrant (and low budget!) faith community that nudges—and sometimes throws—me out of my well-worn comfort zone. And on that Sunday, the Wisconsin Gospellers got me to do something I’d never done before: invite people to worship with us!
By Kimberly Redding | January 9, 2018
This Choir Finds Harmony in Different Faiths
From the PBS NewsHour:
The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir brings together musicians and singers from at least 13 faiths and various backgrounds in order to inspire and unite. Three members offer their Brief but Spectacular take on getting along, having faith and healing through music.
Suggested by Kimberly Redding | January 9, 2018
Why I Joined the Gospellers
I joined the Wisconsin Gospellers because I love to sing and the opportunity to travel to Germany to sing with and for people there, as well as stay in German homes, was an opportunity too good to turn down. The trip was life-changing. I learned to sing challenging music, saw some incredible places, experienced wonderful hospitality and truly learned about another country and its people and their joys and challenges. I had thought that this would be a one-time activity but along the way, something amazing happened. My fellow choir members became friends and then family. The choir is a new type of “church” for me – experiential, challenging, educational – and an opportunity for personal growth. Our trip to New York was a completely different type of experience but equally as life-changing. I gained a deeper understanding of gospel music and the people who created it. I got to take another fantastic trip with my “family”. I am drawn to this “experiential church” and I look forward to our next adventures together. The music and the people make God’s presence and message real. I am so blessed that “God is Still Singing.”
By Linda Stoll | January 4, 2018
Music Makes A Difference in Poland: One Gospeller’s Experience About How Music Helped Overcome Prejudice
Our 2012 tour to Germany, in partnership with the Westend Gospel Singers, also took us to Poland. One of the churches we sang in was in Międzyrzecz, Poland. Międzyrzecz is a town in western Poland, on the Obra and Paklica river, with 18,309 inhabitants and is the capital of Gmina Międzyrzecz and Międzyrzecz County. This was our third concert site in Poland.
Here we encountered a different kind of welcome as the priest of the church had a nervousness about a bunch of Americans singing Gospel music in Poland. He became more uncomfortable as our rehearsal at the church lasted longer than expected. A group of ladies entered the church during our rehearsal, and our first initial reaction was that they were listening to us sing. However, we noticed they began to bow their heads and fold their hands. That signaled something different. Later, we discovered that our rehearsal ran over into a prayer vigil for the ladies of the church.
The priest became more agitated. Soon thereafter, it was even a challenge for the priest to share his bathroom with us because of his attitudinal framework that we were crazy Americans, in addition to the lack of communication about the prayer vigil. The concert began with this type of framework in place. The priest introduced our group. He sat in the front row still portraying the negative attitude. We sang one song. Then, we sang another moving song. During that second song members of the Gospellets looked over at the priest and sensed a change in his face. There started to become less of a scowl and more of a smile. We were almost halfway through the second song, and the priest’s face exhibited a big smile. Music turned the tide and was a game changer in the life of the priest. The smile led to a more relaxed and grateful person. The prejudice went away. It was possible for a bunch of Americans to sing Gospel music in Poland and make a difference in the lives of the priest and others in the audience.
By David Wernecke | January 3, 2018
One of My Favorite Songs
“Praise His Holy Name” by Keith Hampton is one of my favorite songs that the Wisconsin Gospellers sing. The upbeat and fun sounds make me want to jump up and dance every time we sing it. It’s almost impossible to sing this song sitting down because you just want to get up and move with the music. I challenge you to listen to this song one morning before your day starts to see how uplifted you feel throughout the day.
Watch the Gospellers sing “Praise His Holy Name” at Evangelische Kirche in Ruhland, Germany on July 9, 2016.
By Alicia Gardner | December 26, 2017
Reflecting on Worship Etiquette
When you visit a new church, do you enter with an open mind? Or do you enter expecting to see the same worship service you’ve always experienced? Entering a new church with an open mind allows you to experience something new without trying to force your own expectations in the worship service. It is a way to be respectful of the etiquette that current members expect and are comfortable with.
While the Wisconsin Gospellers were in New York City visiting St. Albans church, they had to learn and observe St. Albans worship etiquette. In the St. Albans church, their worship etiquette is to clap hands with the beat of the music and join in singing with the worship music leaders. If the Wisconsin Gospellers had just sat and listened to the worship music leaders rather than singing and clapping, it could have been misinterpreted as being rude. By stepping out of our comfort zones and adjusting to their style of worship, we were better able to connect with these individuals on a personal level. We respected their space, and they respected us for not trying to change their worship! We all need to work on bridging the gap between different worship etiquettes. This is true even for your own neighboring churches. What have you done to step outside your comfort zone to connect with different worship etiquettes?
By Alicia Gardner | December 14, 2017
Reflections from the New York City trip
My heart is so full after spending the last week in NYC with the Wisconsin Gospellers! The fellowship that we have shared with Safe Haven church in Queens has been amazing!
Thought for the week: Satan’s greatest tools to separate the Church are walls- nationality, race, gender, denominations, etc. The people that I have met this last week are determined to tear down the walls to share the Gospel and help/serve the poor, the sick, and the alienated. God bless the Gospellers and their mission!
By Nick Stark | August 19, 2017