Gospel concert toes line between religion, culture

Janette Neuwahl

While 600 people swayed and clapped with the Northwestern Community Ensemble gospel choir Saturday, ASG was scrutinizing whether the concert’s focus was more religious than cultural.

Several members of Associated Student Government’s executive committee attended the concert to question the line between cultural events – which ASG funds – and religious organizations, which it does not.

Held in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, “Crucified with Christ: Celebrating the Victory Over Sin” marked the ensemble’s 31st anniversary.

At the concert, Kim Burrell, a Grammy-nominated gospel singer, exhorted the crowd to praise God for helping them through rough times. She sang four songs that the choir accompanied.

The event included student chaplain Olisa Ojeh preaching about absolution from sin. The 36-member ensemble sang seven songs, including “Jesus Turned My Life Around” and “Wave Your Troubles Away.”

Although some groups funded by ASG incorporate religion into their activities, ASG requires that those organizations be culturally based, ASG Executive Vice President Srikanth Reddy said.

“Hillel and the Muslim-cultural Students Association make the distinction between religion and culture and have speakers and programs about the cultural aspects of their religion,” he said. “We’re asking NCE to do that as well.”

But one NCE leader said that religious lyrics are the cornerstone for gospel music as a cultural expression – and that music and culture are intertwined.

“NCE is not just a gospel choir – we represent the type of music that our culture has created and now a lot of them are gospel songs,” said Adrienne Moore, NCE vice president. “We definitely invite all ethnicities to participate and we don’t ask anyone to disclose their religious beliefs.”

The group hopes to raise awareness on campus about black tradition and culture through music that has its roots in slave spirituals, she said.

Most audience members didn’t know about ASG’s investigation and praised the concert.

“It’s my first time here and I thought the show was excellent,” said Gwen Edmonds, a 61-year-old Chicago musician. “The chemistry and interaction of the show was great – everyone was right into it and I can’t wait to come again.”

ASG does not recognize or fund religious groups. Some faith-based campus organizations that have been denied funding began questioning whether NCE’s mission was strictly cultural earlier this year, Reddy said.

Previous executive committee members were aware of the potential conflict but ASG took action only after other groups complained, Reddy said.

During the annual review of student groups last week, the executive committee discussed derecognizing the ensemble. Instead, ASG and NCE decided to work together to rewrite the ensemble’s constitution, change its mission statement and eliminate a chaplain position from its board.

Executive committee members will continue to monitor NCE events to determine the degree of religious focus, Reddy said.

“(NCE says) that they’re a cultural group and that African-American culture is fused with religion, but if you can’t separate that then you can’t be recognized and should go to the chaplain’s office (for funding),” Reddy said.

He added that the committee will ask the African American Student Affairs and chaplain’s offices for input during the review.

Officials at religious groups not funded by ASG said faith-based organizations deserve equal treatment.

Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein, of the Tannenbaum Chabbad House said the lack of recognition of religious groups may hinder ASG’s attempt to represent all factions of campus.

“Some groups on campus have gotten around (guidelines) by calling themselves ‘cultural’ like the (Muslim-cultural Students Association), but I think it’s sad when you have to change who you are to be recognized by ASG,” Klein said.

University Chaplain Timothy Stevens said religious devotion is an important part of black culture, confusing the issue of NCE’s standing within student group guidelines. If ASG funded religious groups, it could prompt allegations of bias toward one religion if that faith’s group received more money than others, he said.

“You’d have to make decisions based on whether you like this religion more than others so it would be really difficult,” Stevens said. “It’s not like you’re deciding between the ski club or the chess club. The implications are not quite the same as deciding between Christians and Muslims.”