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SGC visit to Chicago Easter 2009

In April 2009, Stavanger Gospel Company made its first ever visit to Chicago – The Windy City. 10 fabulous days of worshipping, sightseeing, shopping and fellowship brought us closer together, and strengthened our relationships with each other and with Light of Love, who hosted our visit.


A group of 40 singers, 4 musicians and around 50 spouses, kids, grandparents, nieces, aunts, uncles and friends met up in Copenhagen for the long flight across the Atlantic. The youngest member of the group was barely 2 weeks old, the eldest close to 80. Arriving in Chicago on Saturday April 4th in the afternoon, we were happy to get to our hotel in the southside suburb of Alsip. A few hours of coveted sleep, and then up at 4 am, in order to make it to our first singing engagement in Lansing, Michigan on Sunday morning. Jet lagged? Sure! Excited to be there, singing in these churches that are so close to our heart? Absolutely!


{mosimage}After the service (and a lovely turkey lunch, supplied by church members) we headed down to South Bend, Indiana for an afternoon service. The contrast between the affluent neighborhoods of Michigan and the trailer parks we drove near to get to the second church was an eye opener to many of us, epitomizing the great disparities within the US, between those who have and those who don’t. In social-democratic Norway, this difference is not as visible and apparent, and caused many of us to reflect on how lucky we are, living where we do. Throughout the week, the presence of the US recession became clear, in how pastors and radio talkshow hosts seemed to have the Illinois unemployment figures at their fingertips, while emphasizing God’s providence and love. We came to realize that even when selling our CDs for 10 dollars (which in Norway would be a huge bargain), in some churches we found it hard to find buyers, since to many this represented a week’s worth of lunch money.


Time was set aside for sightseeing and shopping as well. On Monday, we took our tour buses into the center of Chicago, photographing the skyline in gale force winds (fortunately the snow from the previous day had melted away, never to return). We got to visit the Sears Tower and Navy Pier, but also the site of the Pilgrim Church – the cradle of gospel music – which had succumbed in a fire a couple of years ago. Ensuring that the trade figures for the State of Illinois show an uplift in April was accomplished through visits to Macy’s and numerous shopping malls, and SGC soprano and alto hands and feet have never been as manicured and pedicured as after this Chicago tour.


On Wednesday evening we did a concert in a huge church called House of Hope. We felt like pop stars as we waited backstage, to be escorted to our assigned seats, and then to the podium to sing our 2 songs. When we were asked to do a third number, we felt very privileged, despite the butterflies in our tummies when looking out at 10 000 seats. While not filled to capacity this evening, it was still a larger audience than most of us had faced before. When selling CDs afterwards, a well-dressed man came and stood next to us. He was around 2 meters tall and 1 meter across, and not a gram of fat on him. He stood near our table – as inconspicuous as a small mountain can be – and finally we found courage to ask whether we might help him? “I’m your security, Mam” was the reply, in a bass voice that would make Aril (our Director) drool. So for the first time in SGC history, we had our own bodyguard! Of course, this was probably also the only time in SGC history where there was even a remote possibility we needed one, given that concerts in Randaberg seldom end with someone robbing the CD sale money.


On Friday, we did a concert in the Salvation Army in Oak Brook, which felt a bit like being “home”, despite the fact that the service was in English and Spanish, rather than Norwegian. Here we got to sing a lot of our songs, and the coolest part was the overheads being shown while we sang, which were our lyrics translated into Spanish! Didn’t we feel like the international choir on tour! In every church we visited, the welcome and kindness we received was overwhelming, and the response to our songs and testimonies ever so kind. During the week, we did 4-5 radio interviews with various stations, and got quite a bit of play time, especially for “Revive us”, “Medley” and “Rejoice”. As one talk show host said: “My audience is driving to a dead end job that they hate, but need to pay their mortgage. The least I can do is play some upbeat music for them in the morning, to encourage them and lift their spirits”. On returning home, we got a mail from one of the other hosts, Marcella Jones, saying “I just wanted to tell you that I have gotten nothing but a great response on the Stavanger Gospel Compay. I have put their music in heavy rotation.” So perhaps we’ll soon have a proper fan base in Chicago!


On Sunday, the day we were set to leave, we were in for a singing marathon. Leaving the hotel at 7 am, we headed to Prayer and Faith Outreach Ministries, to perform at 2 services; one at 8 am and the other at 11 am. This was a proper “Pentecostal” congregation in terms of its service structure, and with Light of Love leading the worship section, we feared the roof might lift. Seldom have we sung better than we did there, I think particularly “Don’t be afraid” comes to mind as a once in a lifetime rendition. In such a neighborhood, with so much to fear, it is impossible to be unmoved when you see the tears of the audience.


{mosimage}After the second performance, we rushed to the buses to head to yet another service, this time in the Catholic church Saint Sabina, led by the renowned minister and social activist Father Michael Pfleger. This gig had come about by chance – or perhaps divination – by one of our singers running into Saint Sabina’s minister of music in a downtown shop. As it turned out, it became in many ways the highlight and symbol of our trip. We arrived as the sermon was starting, and for those of us sitting behind the organ, we just couldn’t believe it was a white man preaching – he sounded so black! Also, it was as far from our preconceptions of a catholic service as it is possible to come! A multicultural, multi-ethnic congregation, the church filled to capacity, with a great choir – why did they need us, exactly? As we rose to sing, in this magnificent building with incredible acoustic, we were filled with humility. We performed our songs and were so grateful for the way in which the congregation {mosimage}embraced us and responded to our songs. We were then joined on stage by the St Sabina’s own choir, and asked to do some worship songs together. As it happened, the white SGC singers were all dressed in black, and the (mostly) African-American St Sabina singers were all dressed in white. What a perfect symbol of the black-and-white project which “It’s Amazing” represents, and which brought us to Chicago to begin with! Father Pfleger’s remark on our return was to the same effect: “Your visit to us was a great blessing, I only wish we had more time to visit and share each others stories. I had made the same remark to staff here, about the White and Black uniforms of both Choirs. How fitting on Easter Sunday for this display of the way God wants us to come together!  Hope you can visit us again.”


Throughout the week, Light of Love – and especially Anita – did all they could to make us feel welcome, and take care of us. Picking us up for radio interviews, smoothing the path, enabling us to get into churches to perform where we would otherwise not have been invited – in all ways they made our stay ever so much more enjoyable and worthwhile. On the Sunday lunch before we left for the airport again, Aril remarked that it is our dearest wish that our friendship and cooperation with Light of Love continues, and that we’ll meet again soon. This wish was certainly shared by all the choir members.


So what do we remember the most from our trip to Chicago? The skyscrapers? The deep pan pizza? The bodyguard? No, I think most of all the fellowship, the response, the inspiration, the people. Being in the place where gospel music started, bringing our own touch to it, learning and sharing. We hope some day we’ll return.


Stavanger gospel company