Awakening the Soul
Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom S'95
Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics, North Park Theological Seminary
Master of divinity student, graduating in 2015
Director of the Seminary Gospel Choir
Michelle and Brandi first met as neighbors, and later partnered to start the Seminary Gospel Choir. Here, they reflect on their relationship and partnership in the choir, and what it has meant to the Seminary and church community.
Michelle: I love my subject matter, but I am inspired more by my students, their desire to learn, and their passion for serving God’s church. The mutual learning that happens in the midst of adults who are studying Christian theology is the life-giving aspect of my work. I have seen numerous gifted students come through the Seminary—and the joy is that they are gifted in so many different ways. Some are academically bright, some are incredibly creative, others are gifted with speaking and music, and some have gifts in the area of advocacy and justice. I am constantly changed by the challenges of communicating the mystery of God and by the input and gifts of my students.
Brandi: A great teacher is one who is not only able to teach you, but also acts as a positive role model. A great teacher is someone with the ability to work with students from diverse backgrounds and abilities. A great teacher teaches not only through lectures, but also through their actions. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom is a great teacher.
Michelle: Brandi and I are neighbors, and that’s the real part of our relationship. I met her at a backyard BBQ and then the second time at the park. We walked home together, exchanged phone numbers, and that was the beginning.
Brandi: The gospel choir was formed out of an effort of the Seminary’s Globalization and Diversity committee. We were concerned that the chapel experience at this “diverse” institution was fairly one-sided. The gospel choir was formed to serve the community in chapel for Black History Month. I offered to participate, sharing with Michelle that “this is kind of my thing if you need any help.” Here we are, many months later, having ministered at Covenant Offices, Collegelife, and Seminary graduation.
Michelle: Brandi sparked our working together and starting the gospel choir. At the urging of a joint meeting between our Chapel committee and Globalization & Diversity committee, I offered to organize the group, do publicity, and find the students. Within an hour, Brandi was at my office door telling me that she could help.
I laugh now, because “helping” is an understatement. She’s the talent and passion of this choir, and it’s so evident to all of the members that she loves Jesus. She calls me the manager—and so that’s what I do (in addition to singing with the choir). Mostly, I work with her to coordinate other members or rehearsals and communicate on outside events. The most exciting one for us this year was that we sang for the fundraiser for the Juvenile Detention Center. Brandi grew up in Chicago, and for us to be able to sing for them intersects deeply with both Brandi’s and my passion to serve urban youth in Chicago.
Brandi: What makes this relationship different for me is that this is the first cross-cultural mentoring relationship I have ever had. This is a big deal. Watching Michelle has taught me what community really is. The way that her family has accepted mine is amazing. I love Michelle; she has made my joining this predominately Caucasian community a wonderful experience. What’s funny is that I have yet to have Michelle as a professor; all of our interactions have been outside of the classroom.
As I was preparing for the gospel choir’s first chapel service, Michelle made sure that I was aware that one of the songs had to be sung before entering Lent. In the African American culture (at least where I grew up), there isn’t any mentioning of the church calendar. It was crazy to me. I am grateful for that experience. It has made me aware of something that is sacred to many people, but also taught me that the musical world does not revolve around me. Michelle is helping me to get over my fears of working with the dominant culture. I have learned that people want me to be me.
Michelle: As far as the teaching relationship, I’ve learned a lot from her about gospel music. By entering the world of gospel with Brandi’s direction, I have found an art form that glorifies God and awakens my soul in a way that has nudged my relationship with God pretty significantly. In addition to learning about gospel music, I’ve learned about gospel community. I get the whole analogy that Paul uses in I Corinthians about the body and its various parts, all working together.
Our choir has had Seminary students, university students, faculty, staff, spouses, and even children. Distinctions between those groups are completely absent. Every rehearsal is worship, and begins and ends with prayer. When one of our members’ father died suddenly last year, the choir got together and filmed a song in effort to extend love and sympathy to her and her mother. It was a small act of kindness, but that is what worshipping God and loving one another is about.
Brandi: I am honored that my Seminary community has enjoyed the gospel choir experience enough to create an internship opportunity for me to lead it. I love what I’m doing. This is something that I would have done—and did do—for free for many years. This is also a great experience for me. Although I am not new to gospel music, I have never taught people unfamiliar with it. This is definitely a cross-cultural experience.
Michelle: I’d describe Brandi as bright, strong, Spirit-filled, perceptive, and vital—both in the sense that we (the Christian community, NPTS) need her and in the sense that she exudes life! She’s open to learning and even in areas that she is already knowledgeable (Gospel music)—she’s open to learning or bringing other frameworks in (such as honoring the church calendar – which is my own background).
To answer the question, “What is unique about my relationship with Brandi?”—she’s one of the most inclusive and gospel oriented people I’ve ever met, and she uses her gifts to glorify God. She’s a good teacher, and she has given me an opportunity to be a learner in a context where I’m usually the teacher—that’s such a gift.
Brandi: I will be graduating with a master of divinity from North Park Theological Seminary. I plan to go into ministry with my husband who is a recent seminary graduate. North Park is making that possible by providing me with not only a high quality education, but also by showing me how to live in community with people unlike myself. North Park has put my family and me in the most diverse zip code in the country. My daughter attends school with students from all over the world. My husband and I have a heart for multicultural ministry. This experience has been priceless. I am also a Diversity Scholar. Without the help of this scholarship, my attending this university would be impossible. I am eternally grateful for this opportunity.