Young, Gifted, and Black Gospel Choir perseveres


Contributed by Bethany Willig.

Young, Gifted, and Black Gospel Choir in Herrick Chapel.

Taylor Nunley, Staff Writer

56 years ago, in 1967, six Black Grinnell College students came together to share their love for gospel music and worship. From there, the Young, Gifted, and Black Gospel Choir (YGB) was formed. A place where Black students could embrace their religion and celebrate their faith in a Black Church tradition, YGB was a welcome respite from classes or work. YGB only grew after its inception — in numbers, events, ideas and diversity.

After the COVID-19 pandemic struck in spring 2020, the choir dwindled to a fraction of its rich, flourishing assembly of members. Once filled with over 40 students, YGB now has less than 13 active members in the choir. “It’s not as robust as far as participation,” said Michael Sims, adviser to YGB and dean of student involvement. “Prior to the pandemic, on average, we probably would have between 26 and 35 students registered for the class.”

Sims said he believes a multitude of causes are contributing to YGB’s lower numbers. Due to the pandemic, upperclassmen student leaders who may have been more enthusiastic about the choir left the College. With that loss of passion, Sims said he believes certain students may feel that they may not be able to join YGB.

“We were a very diverse group,” Sims said, referring to the choir before the pandemic. “We’ve had folks from all over … From many countries, in many states … and I think sometimes people take the name and think, ‘Oh, well, I don’t belong,’ whereas before the pandemic it wasn’t an issue.”

“The name stays out of namesake out of respect [for] all those before and because of what the tradition is. It’s not about makeup,” Sims added.

Sonia Benitez Torres `23 said she found Black Church at Grinnell, during her first year, in her search for a regular church to attend. “I went to a church in town, and I didn’t really like it … The sermon was not my cup of tea.” In contrast, at Black Church at Grinnell, Benitez Torres found a sense of belonging. “I enjoyed the music. And I liked that there were other students of color there.”

After learning about YGB from Black Church at Grinnell, Benitez Torres joined in the spring semester of her first year. But she remembers a different YGB, too. “I remember joining and feeling overwhelmed. There were a lot of people, and everyone kind of knew each other and was very welcoming. It was overwhelming in a good way … Now, there’s just like one row of us when we go to the meetings.”

After involvement with choir and directing a religious group in high school, Essi Adokou `25 said YGB allows her to keep practicing her faith. “I was already involved in my religious life before coming here, and so to not fall apart from my culture and my religion, YGB kept me grounded and connected to my religious life,” Adokou said.

YGB kept me grounded and connected to my religious life.

— Essi Adokou `25

Despite the gospel choir’s low numbers, leaders and students alike stay positive. Sims said this is not the first time in the history of YGB that numbers have dipped. After its initial six members grew to over 30, they dropped back down in the early 1990s. “For the most part, it has been a pretty strong number, which is something that we hope to get back,” said Sims.

Spring Tour, an event held during Grinnell College’s spring break that involves YGB members traveling across the country to sing and perform a service project, has not happened post-pandemic. 2023 is the first year that YGB leaders have entertained the idea of Spring Tour because of health safety, but due to numbers, Spring Tout will continue to be delayed. “We’d like numbers to get up because in order to do Tour, we really need to have more bodies,” Sims said.

Although YGB members will not be performing during Spring Tour, they will be performing at the upcoming annual Black History Month service on Feb. 12 at 10 a.m. in Herrick Chapel.

YGB encourages all interested to join the choir. Students involved in YGB earn one music credit.