About twenty years ago, Professor and Chair of Modern Languages Jessie Dixon ’89 started the Umoja Community Gospel choir at Knox. Now, after a few hiatuses, Umoja is back in full force.
The choir has been running sporadically over the years due to Dixon’s teaching abroad, but it was not until last year that she started to realize how valuable the choir really is to both Knox and Galesburg as a whole.
“Several students approached me last year, and different members of the faculty and administration called me and asked, ‘Are you starting Umoja again?’” Dixon said. “I didn’t think anybody cared … I was surprised.”
It was the combination of the support from the community and a trip out of town during this past summer that convinced Dixon that rebuilding Umoja was something she needed to do.
“I did a gospel workshop in Houston this summer, and I said, ‘Okay, I gotta keep doing this,’” she said.
The purpose of the choir from its inception is reflected in its name, Umoja Community Gospel Choir. Umoja means “unity” in Swahili. Dixon, along with those working at the Center for Intercultural Life at the time, picked the name because they wanted the choir to “bring together people from the campus and the [Galesburg] community.”
That message of unity was clear when the choir, made up of students and residents of all ages, met for rehearsal last Tuesday in Ford Center for the Fine Arts. The rehearsal began with the group in a circle holding hands and praying. Once the prayer was finished, Dixon energetically began a chromatic warm-up on the words “may the Lord bless you,” the rich block harmonies creating a heavy and soulful sound that was quintessentially gospel. There were not more than a few moments that passed between bouts of laughter and giddiness, but when the singing began, the emotional intensity and sincerity was palpable.
Dixon’s enthusiastic direction is contagious, and she builds camaraderie with the choir almost instantly. She knows most of the members well, some for almost a decade, while some she is meeting for the first time this year.
Mike Duffy, a tenor, met Dixon through their church nine years ago, and just recently joined the choir three years ago. He says it is his faith that keeps him coming back.
“I like the fellowship, to sing praises … the Bible says to praise the Lord in song,” he said. The songs they sing speak of the awesomeness of God, his unfailing love and thankfulness for his mercy. One chorus thanks God for being a source of security in times of uncertainty, placing our feet on “solid ground.”
But whether it is for one’s spiritual nourishment, the love of community or simply musical curiosity, Dixon insists there is a place for every kind of person in the Umoja choir. Dixon hopes that everyone in the Knox and Galesburg community feels welcome to join.
“I always get people who say, ‘But I’m not black, I’m not even Christian — I can’t sing gospel,’” Dixon said. “I say, ‘Yes you can. We can come together and make a joyful noise.’”
The Umoja Community Gospel Choir performs this Saturday at 3 p.m. at Cook Elementary School. The event is hosted by Rock Apostolic Church.