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. ••