Christianity crucial to culture, supporters say

Janette Neuwahl

Because gospel music combines religion and culture so inextricably, Associated Student Government will find it difficult to remove some religious elements from Northwestern Community Ensemble, black NU students and faculty said Monday.

“In many ways those who practice gospel here on campus are crucial to understanding a view of spiritual life that moves beyond the reach of churches,” said Weinberg Prof. Adam Green, who teaches Introduction to African-American History. “Those who practice gospel are ambassadors between the spiritual and secular world.”

ASG Executive Board members met Monday night to discuss the status of Northwestern Community Ensemble, which ASG is scrutinizing for being more religious than cultural, Executive Vice President Srikanth Reddy said.

NCE is an A-status group, which enables it to receive student group funding. But under ASG’s guidelines, any group that can receive recognition from another source, such as the Office of the University Chaplain, cannot receive ASG recognition.

The ensemble had a secular focus from its inception in 1971 until a few years ago, when leaders rewrote the constitution and included more religious language, Reddy said.

“We are going to work with the board of NCE to get rid of the religious language and shift the group back to being a cultural group,” Reddy said.

NCE Vice President Adrienne Moore compared gospel to American Indian rain dances, saying religion cannot be separated from culture.

“People really need to look at the definition of culture and see what that is and what a person would be doing if they try to separate that,” Moore said.

NCE Chaplain Olisa Ojeh said the group’s ultimate goal is to minister through songs and draw people together through music.

“The fact that our purpose is to be a ministry has been our interest for 31 years, and why (ASG’s concern) is coming up at this time, I don’t know,” said Ojeh, a McCormick sophomore.

Separating religion from the culture of gospel music is difficult, said Ebo Dawson-Andoh, incoming National Pan-Hellenic Council president and ASG’s academic vice president.

“Religion is an integral part of African-American culture, and if you look at the history of the United States, what got black people though all the hardships that this country put on them was religion and therefore it becomes entrenched in their culture,” said Dawson-Andoh, an Education junior.

The rise of gospel music came in the 1930s when blacks migrating from the South brought to their new churches a religious fervor propelled during the slavery movement, when masters urged slaves to find solace for their adversity in God. Thomas Dorsey, who is considered the father of gospel, founded the genre in Chicago.

Gospel has changed from being an expression of the dominance of Christian practices in black communities to a symbol of black identity, Green said. Any consideration by ASG to monitor or derecognize NCE will lessen the cultural opportunities for NU students, Green said.

“To presume gospel groups on campus are somehow so different from other student groups is to close off the campus community – not only from the opportunity to better understand the moral and spiritual practices in everyday life – but to deny the capacity to strengthen and deepen perhaps the most important vehicle for understanding these practices,” Green said.