Crossing cultures

Ger­man choir mem­bers sang Afric­an Amer­ic­an Spir­ituals — in Eng­lish.

Voices of joy: The Gos­pel Choir of the Castle Church per­forms at Im­manuel Luther­an Church in Somer­ton. BRAD LAR­RIS­ON / FOR THE TIMES

Al­though it was a Tues­day even­ing at Im­manuel Luther­an Church in Somer­ton, it might as well have been an East­er Sunday morn­ing. A crowd of 200 people filled the sanc­tu­ary and their wel­com­ing ex­changes cre­ated a friendly buzz in the air.

Rays of light from the set­ting sun peeked through the mul­ti­colored stained glass win­dows, il­lu­min­at­ing a wooden sign  — “Deutsch” — hanging on one wall of the al­tar and a match­ing sign — “Eng­lish” — on the op­pos­ite wall.

 “This is the way it used to be on Sundays!” Mike Simpson of Tor­res­dale said as he entered the church, scan­ning the pews for a place to sit.

Forty mem­bers of The Gos­pel Choir of the Castle Church, all the way from Ger­many, idled in the back of the church, wait­ing to be­gin their pro­ces­sion to the al­tar. They were about to be­gin their fifth and fi­nal con­cert on a tour of Luther­an churches across South­east­ern Pennsylvania.

Ran­ging in ages from eight to re­tire­ment, the choir mem­bers wore match­ing black shirts and pants and dark purple stoles hung around their necks. Many ex­changed light­hearted banter in their nat­ive Ger­man; for most mem­bers, this is the only lan­guage they speak.
Christel Birgel’s eyes lit up as she entered the church on Thursday, May 16, just be­fore the choir’s open­ing num­ber. Al­though she had spent the en­tire day cook­ing an au­then­t­ic Ger­man meal for the church’s guests, she dis­played no signs of fa­tigue. “All I can say is, ‘Knock their socks off!’’’ Birgel said as she lingered with the group.

And with that, The Gos­pel Choir began pro­cessing slowly down the cen­ter aisle, hum­ming Amaz­ing Grace in uni­son.  As they gathered in rows at the front, their mu­sic was over­come by the sound of the pipe or­gan, played by choir dir­ect­or Thomas Herzer.
Thus began an al­most 90-minute per­form­ance that con­sisted of Afric­an Amer­ic­an spir­ituals, all sung in Eng­lish by a Ger­man choir. The rep­er­toire in­cluded songs such as Free At Last, We Shall Over­come, and A Mighty Fort­ress, which was sung in both Eng­lish and Ger­man. The choir mem­bers sang without hym­nals, al­low­ing them to sway, clap, and snap along to the mu­sic, en­cour­aging the audi­ence to join in with them.

Mu­sic­al ex­per­i­ence among the choir mem­bers ranged from none at all to one mem­ber who is clas­sic­ally trained in op­era.
Nils Phil­ip­peit is one of those without mu­sic­al train­ing, yet he has sung in four choirs, worked as a choir lead­er and played the pi­ano in an or­ches­tra in Ger­many. “Read­ing about the his­tory and cul­ture of the Afric­an Amer­ic­an mu­sic moved me from a very young age,” said Phil­ip­peit, who sang a solo in Open My Steps.

The Gos­pel Choir is based at the his­tor­ic Castle Church in Wit­ten­berg, Ger­many, where al­most 500 years ago, Mar­tin Luth­er nailed the 95 Theses to the church’s doors, lead­ing the way to the Prot­est­ant Re­form­a­tion and the cre­ation of the Luther­an Church.

Many of the choir mem­bers said they joined for more than just the re­li­gious as­pect. They sing for the ca­marader­ie, the rich cul­ture be­hind the mu­sic they per­form, as well as the ap­peal of the mu­sic. They come from a vari­ety of re­li­gious back­grounds.

Des­pite not be­ing a mem­ber of Castle Church, Ges­ine Ack­er be­came a mem­ber of the choir for her love of mu­sic. “The mu­sic moves something in­side you,” said Ack­er. “It fails to leave you un­touched.”

Since its in­cep­tion in 2009, The Gos­pel Choir has per­formed in coun­tries throughout Europe, in­clud­ing Sweden and Den­mark. When the choir de­veloped an in­terest in the fall of 2012 in tour­ing in Amer­ica, Herzer con­tac­ted his good friend Steph­en God­sall-My­ers, pas­tor of Ad­vent Luther­an Church in Har­ley­s­ville. God­sall-My­ers worked with the choir to try to make the dream a real­ity.

Christine Simpson, a mem­ber of Im­manuel Luther­an for more than 15 years, said she saw many sim­il­ar­it­ies between the Ger­man choir and the choir in her own church. “They’re just like us,” said Simpson. “Singing in the choir brings us all to­geth­er not just re­li­giously, but so­cially as well.”

High school Ger­man teach­er Inge Stan­nik, along with her stu­dents, Dean Woldrow and Nath­an Tschepik, were among those in the pews. “I thought it was neat how the mu­sic plugged all cul­tures to­geth­er, which ex­ceeded my ex­pect­a­tions,” said Tschepik, a ju­ni­or from Cent­ral Bucks West High School.

God­sall-My­ers and his wife, Jean, at­ten­ded the per­form­ance, too, and were dif­fi­cult to miss. Both donned or­ange T-shirts with a phrase in Ger­man that trans­lates to “Nev­er stop think­ing out­side the box.” The Gos­pel Choir’s per­form­ance at Im­manuel Luther­an Church was just that — of­fer­ing a new spin on tra­di­tion­al mu­sic that has been sung for years. ••

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