Shaun Whitehead is a student in McCormick’s ACTS D.Min in Preaching program (click here to learn more about the program). She was born and raised in Chicago. The only time she had lived outside of Chicago was during undergraduate years in Atlanta. Shaun had never heard of St. Lawrence University. She had never heard of Canton, New York, or the region called the North Country. However after graduating from McCormick in June of 2003, she found herself in that very place near the Adirondack Mountains three months later.
She had been called to the university’s newly created position, Associate University Chaplain. Along with the University Chaplain, Rev. Kathleen Buckley, Shaun works in and with all spiritual life on campus. However her primary call was pastoring the campus’ new Progressive Christian Worship Service that is now called the Gospel Service.
One of her responsibilities was to work with the gospel choir on campus. That choir is the music ministry of the service, and she changed the name to the Community Gospel Choir. Shaun says she wanted the choir’s name to reflect the singers, some of whom were from other universities in the area and some who were local community persons.
On her first visit home for Christmas in December of 2003, she and her friend William R. Hamilton, a co-founder of the renowned Chicago Mass Choir and Minister of Music at the New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, were talking about her new life in rural America. She recalls they almost simultaneously brought up the idea of bringing a gospel workshop to her new home. As Shaun says, “the Holy Spirit birthed it in that moment.” The first gospel workshop called “Got Spirit?” was held in February 2004.
The workshop choir includes the Community Gospel Choir that Shaun co-directs with Mr. Barry Torres, at St. Lawrence University. But from the beginning Shaun opened up the gospel workshop to ANYONE who wanted to sing gospel music for four days! Seasoned and experienced singers are welcome, as well as those who have never sung outside of their showers! One of the greatest gifts of the workshop according to Shaun is that they determined from the beginning that it would be open to ALL people of all religious/spiritual traditions and those of no tradition. As Shaun says, the array of folks who gather every year “blows my mind and takes my breath away. Why? Folks of many different faith traditions – or none – gather around the gospel for four days to sing of this good news.”
We are singing of God’s love through the powerful African American gospel genre. And I have my moments when I just know I’m experiencing the kingdom of God.”
The workshop usually averages at least 100 singers every year. There are some persons who were in the first workshop in 2004 and they still show up every year. “In the workshop, we don’t deal with a lot of music theory. We simply gather Wednesday, Thursday and Friday night and all day on Saturday to learn 10-12 traditional and contemporary gospel songs, and we present those songs in a concert for the community on Saturday night.”
This year’s gospel workshop celebrated its 10th anniversary. And there was great excitement about the workshop. Some people actually travel from out of state to the workshop every year.
One of the greatest gifts the gospel workshop receives is the wonderful exposure it gets from NCPR – North Country Public Radio. Instead of just announcing the event, morning personality, Todd Moe and station manager, Ellen Rocco allow Shaun and a group of singers to appear on Todd’s show to sing live and promote the concert! This exposure has been invaluable!
“I let the music do its work. And sometimes we look up and we have found ourselves in the midst of pure worship. Hands are raised, tears are falling, and bodies are moving in ways unfamiliar to some folks. But the spirit we all feel is undeniable. Students talk of never having experienced anything like that. There’s something about music that gathers us.”
Shaun says that gospel music is the air she breathes. The last place she expected to find such a rich gospel journey was in her rural America home in upstate New York. What a gift!