GospelFest 2023: Walt Whitman’s Soul Children of Chicago

On the ensemble’s 700th-week anniversary, Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago performed in the Colgate Memorial Chapel on Friday, Feb. 17, upholding the University’s long-standing tradition of GospelFest. Along with Colgate’s own gospel choir, Deion Patterson and the Sojourners’ Gospel Choir performed as the opening act. 

GospelFest was not the first time Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago performed at Colgate. The group was formed from Whitman’s — a professional singer — Chicago church choir and began touring in 2009. Over the years, they have performed three times at Colgate. Their most recent visit was in 2018.

Corey MacPherson — associate university chaplain and Protestant campus minister — elaborated on the University’s long relationship with The Soul Children of Chicago, telling the audience that part of the reason they came was to commemorate a recent loss in the Colgate community. 

“I want you to know they pray for you and this community every morning,” MacPherson said. “When [Whitman] asked me what’s going on in the community […], I shared we actually experienced a great loss this week. This week we lost Professor Ephraim Woods, who has been teaching chemistry here for over twenty years. I knew him well enough to know you were all deeply loved by Professor Woods.”

The Soul Children of Chicago dedicated the song “Go Light Your World” to Woods. They not only energized the crowd with their dancing and modernized choir music, incorporating many different instruments such as drums and guitar, but also evidently provided a beacon of hope and healing with their lyrics.

Sophomore Nia-Patrice Lewis attentively encouraged her friend, sophomore Jaharra Anglin Stubbs, a lead singer from the Sojourners’ Gospel Choir, throughout the show from the front row. Lewis shared how she felt about GospelFest.

“Friday’s performance was one of the most amazing events that I have attended on this campus. From the music to the energy to the spirit in the room, GospelFest was an incredible moment to behold,” Lewis said.

Lewis said she attended the event mainly to show support for Stubbs, but she had seen many posters and was excited about attending a gospel concert. She said she had been to a few gospel concerts when she was younger but had mixed experiences.

“Regardless, I was truly blown away by Walt Whitman’s choir,” Lewis said. “It’s one of the few genres that acts like its own person. You talk to the gospel, and it talks right back. Sometimes, when it plays and gives a message you aren’t ready for, you do have the inclination to push it away. But on the days when it’s exactly what you need to hear, it is a powerful force.”

She also explained that she was raised Buddhist and is not a practicing Christian, so she described her experience hearing the gospel chants as “interesting.” Nevertheless, Lewis said that “the mutual expression of joys and triumphs that comes with the journey and history of Blackness, expands over all and any arbitrary words.”

While dancing and singing, Lewis said that she felt in “direct contact” with her soul — that she was completely interconnected.

“Everything made sense, and I felt safe, honestly,” Lewis said. “It’s a hard feeling to come by up on this hill. Yet somehow, I did.”

Sophomore Macdonald Chirara’s experience echoed the positive impression felt by Lewis.

“The combination of powerful vocals, inspiring lyrics and vibrant music created an unforgettable experience. The energy and passion the choir members brought to the stage were truly remarkable,” Chirara said. “They were clearly fully immersed in the music and message it conveyed.”

After the show, MacPherson reinforced that everyone, regardless of religion, is welcome and encouraged to attend the annual GospelFest — the organizers have no intention to religiously persuade. Many attendees seemed at home in the Chapel, absorbing the show and contemplating their emotions.