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Gospel Choir anniversary concert draws 800

Gospel Choir

CHICAGO, IL (November 17, 2008) – Michele Thomas stood backstage trembling with tears rolling down her cheeks following the North Park University Gospel Choir’s 15th Anniversary Concert on Saturday, November 15.

Pausing to wipe another tear, Thomas admitted that she could have never envisioned such a sight when she approached school officials proposing a gospel choir in 1993. She was only a freshman at the time.

“I just wanted to share gospel music with other students,” she recalled. “I wanted to bring them into that world and [let them] feel the experience.”

On Saturday night, 200 choir members and Thomas were joined by roughly 40 alumni from around the country, a liturgical dance team from Cleveland, Ohio, and famed gospel composer Richard Smallwood. Eight hundred people attended the concert held at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall on the campus of Northwestern University. The event was moved offsite to accommodate the large audience.

“My heart is just so full,” said Thomas, who has seen the choir evolve from humble beginnings.

What started as a group of 15 students soon swelled to 40 by the time the choir performed its first full-length concert on Mother’s Day in 2004. Today, the North Park University Gospel Choir has crisscrossed the country, entertaining and ministering to thousands. Its concerts are also among the most popular events on campus, routinely attracting standing-room-only crowds.

Thomas was not the only performer overwhelmed by the music on Saturday night. “This was one of the most incredible nights for me,” said Gospel Choir Director Rollo Dilworth, “not just musically, but in my whole life.” Dilworth has not only guided the choir since 1996, he has also been asked to direct choirs around the world. “This is what I believe heaven is going to be like,” he added. “This was all a glimpse of God’s glory!”

Also making a noted appearance throughout the concert was Mary Bridget Kustusch, who started North Park’s Gospel Sign Language Choir. Kustusch, a 2004 North Park graduate, formed the choir in 2002. Seeing how the Sign Language Choir has grown was “surreal,” said Kustusch, who returned for the night from Raleigh, N.C., where she is a Ph.D. candidate in physics at North Carolina State University.

Like Thomas, Kustusch didn’t know what she was starting during her time at the school. “I had no idea it would continue,” she said with amazement.

The audience’s appreciation was expressed throughout the evening’s performance, beginning with extended applause as the choir entered and punctuated throughout with shouts of “amen” and hands raised in praise. Afterwards, audience members described the concert as “amazing” and “incredible.”

The guiding text for the evening was Philippians 3:12-14: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (TNIV)

That theme of journey and pushing forward to a greater calling was echoed throughout the program. The Duffy Liturgical Dance Ensemble, with participants ranging from six-year-old children to middle-aged adults, joined the 200 voices on “Ain’t A That Good News,” a traditional spiritual arranged by Dilworth. Thomas presented a solo of John P. Kee’s “Bread of Heaven,” and the alumni choir joined the other singers on the rousing, “He Reigns Forever.”

The first half ended with Campus Pastor Judy Peterson reading from Revelation 19 and alumni joining the current choir to sing the standard of the same name. Dilworth said that although the piece was a regular part of the choir’s repertoire, Saturday night’s performance was the first time it was sung with an entire reading of the text.

The second half of the concert highlighted the work of Smallwood and began with the evening’s theme song, “We’ve Come Too Far,” one of the composer’s hits. It, too, carried a message encouraging a journey of hope: “We've come this far by faith/Leaning on the Lord/Trusting in His Holy word/He never failed me yet/Oh' can't turn around/We've come this far by faith.”

Reba Praise—a group from Reba Place Church in Evanston, Ill.—led the audience in powerful renditions of “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and a worship medley that brought the crowd to its feet. The five-member group includes several former and current North Park students and is directed by Helen Hudgens, associate professor of music at the University.

Smallwood joined the other musicians for “Angels” and “Bless the Lord.” The evening concluded with all of the performers on stage leading the audience in “Total Praise,” one of the most widely performed contemporary gospel songs.

“This is probably the proudest moment of my time here in Chicago,” noted North Park University President David Parkyn. Referencing the University’s “distinctively Christian, intentionally urban, purposefully multicultural” core values, he described how the evening accentuated them all. With its scripturally based lyrics, the gospel genre has roots in Chicago and was influenced by Mahalia Jackson, Tommy Dorsey, and the Pilgrim (Baptist) Church. And with so many alumni and friends of the University uniting across the lines of culture and color, the event bespoke the University’s spirit of multiculturalism.

“Tonight we can join all our voices in a song of praise to God,” Parkyn declared.

And they did.