The Spirituals Project National Conference: Healing 2023
May 11-13, 2023
A REAP (Research, Education, Activism, Performance) conference hosted by The Spirituals Project of the University of Denver
We are thrilled to announce the return of The Spirituals Project National Conference. Initially planned for 2020 and postponed due to COVID-19, the conference will be hosted by the University of Denver and feature an exciting line-up of guest speakers, breakout sessions, and performances.
The Spirituals Project is a secular, community-engaged program of the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. The Project seeks to preserve and revitalize the artistic, educational, and social justice teachings of “spirituals,” songs that were created and first sung by enslaved Africans in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. We are a community outreach and artistic program centered around a core 55-member multi-ethnic, multigenerational community choir. In addition to a core group of singers from widely diverse segments of the Denver metropolitan community, the choir includes University of Denver students, as well as staff and faculty members.
The theme of the 2023 conference is Healing. Healing is a counterpoint to violence, rupture, and stress—both sustained and sudden. In their earliest iterations, the spirituals responded to physical, spiritual, and cultural violence. And they have continued to do so. Healing (or a lack thereof) is thus a theme that emerges in many ways throughout the spirituals’ history and their contemporary practice. What did healing mean historically? What does it mean today? What is or was in need of healing? How do the spirituals and related traditions engage with healing? Is healing a useful concept today? What does the framework of healing invite us to examine more deeply? What does it cause us to ignore?
All events will take place at the University of Denver campus in Denver, Colorado.
For more information about The Spirituals Project: https://liberalarts.du.edu/lamont/spirituals-project
All events will take place at the University of Denver campus in Denver, Colorado.
Thursday, May 11, 2023
5:00 PM Registration and sign-in
6:30 PM Pre-event reception
7:30 PM Keynote address: Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr. "Healing for the Nations"
Friday, May 12, 2023
8:00 AM Refreshments
9:00 AM Plenary I: Dr. Eileen Guenther (60 min.)
10:30 AM Breakout session I (60 min.)
12:00 PM Lunch
1:30 PM Breakout session II (60 min.)
3:00 PM Breakout session III (60 min.)
4:30 PM Dinner on your own
7:30 PM Evening concert in the Denver metro area
Saturday, May 13, 2023
8:00 AM Refreshments
9:00 AM Plenary II: Dr. Reiland Rabaka
10:30 AM Breakout session IV (60 min.)
12:00 PM Lunch on your own
1:30 PM Film viewing: "I Can Tell the World"
5:00 PM Dinner on your own
7:30 PM Gala Concert featuring The Spirituals Project Choir
Schedule subject to change
Dr. James Forbes, Keynote
The Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr., is The Harry Emerson Fosdick Distinguished Professor at Union Theological Seminary, Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church, President of the Healing of the Nations Foundation and Chairman of the Drum Major Institute (all of these institutions of New York City).
The Riverside Church is an interdenominational, interracial, and international church built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. in 1927. The 2,400 member church is affiliated with the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ. Forbes, who was installed as the fifth senior minister of Riverside on June 1, 1989, and retired on June 1, 2007, was the first African-American to serve as minister of this multicultural congregation. He is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches.
Before being called to Riverside’s pulpit, Dr. Forbes served from 1976-1985 as the Brown and Sockman Associate Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. From 1985-1989, he was Union’s first Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching. Union named him the first Harry Emerson Fosdick Adjunct Professor of Preaching in 1989, when he accepted the pastorate at Riverside. Dr. Forbes has served on the Core Teaching Staff at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York.
In national and international religious circles, Dr. Forbes is known as the preacher’s preacher because of his extensive preaching career and his charismatic style. In its March 4, 1996 issue Newsweek magazine recognized Forbes as one of the 12 “most effective preachers” in the English-speaking world. This pastor, educator, administrator, community activist and interfaith leader was twice designated as one of America’s greatest Black preachers by Ebony magazine.
Dr. Forbes has earned three degrees and has been awarded 14 honorary degrees. He earned a doctor of ministry degree from Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, NY; a master of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, NY; and a bachelor of science in chemistry from Howard University in Washington, D.C. He earned his clinical pastoral education certificate from the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, VA.
His Alma Mater, Union Theology Seminary presented him its Unitas Distinguished Alumnus Award and Teacher’s College of Columbia University award him its Distinguished Service Medal in 2003. Howard University awarded him their Distinguished Service Award in Ministry. His honorary doctorates included degrees from the following colleges and universities: Princeton, DePauw, Colgate, Fairleigh Dickenson, Lehigh and the University of Richmond.
From 1992 to 2007, Dr. Forbes was co-chair of A Partnership of Faith, an interfaith organization of clergy among New York’s Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim communities. He is on the board of Manhattanville College, the Interfaith Alliance, Children’s Defense Fund, Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University, and the United Way. He is a past president of The Martin Luther King Fellows.
Two of Dr. Forbes’ songs have been published in the Silver Burdett Songbooks for schools: “We Shall Overcome” and “Our Families Together.” Dr. Forbes has performed the narration for several large musical productions, including Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” with the Riverside choir.
Born in 1935 in Burgaw, North Carolina, Dr. Forbes is married to Bettye Franks Forbes, formerly of San Antonio, TX. They are the proud parents of one son, James A. Forbes, III.
Dr. Eileen Guenther, Friday morning plenary
Dr. Eileen Guenther is Lecturer in Organ at The George Washington University and Professor Emerita of Church Music at Wesley Theological Seminary, where she taught music and worship courses and served as Director of Chapel Music. She leads workshops for musical and denominational organizations on music and social justice, Spirituals, and clergy-music relations. Her book, Rivals or a Team: Clergy-Musician Relationships in the 21st Century, has been widely acclaimed with a great deal of media attention, and interviews with Eileen have been published in a variety of venues from blogs and denominational newsletters to The Huffington Post and The Christian Century. A second book, In Their Own Words: Slave Life and Power of Spirituals, has been called “the most comprehensive work done on the Negro Spiritual to date.” The 125 presentations Eileen has led on this book have taken her from Atlanta, Georgia to Ashland, Oregon and have been called “powerful,” and “life-changing.”
Eileen served as Visiting Lecturer at Africa University in Zimbabwe and a member of the UMC Global praise teams teaching music and worship in Uganda and Ivory Coast. South Africa, too, holds a special place in her heart and she has led nine groups of Wesley Seminary students on intercultural immersion trips there.
Dr. Guenther served with distinction as Director of Music at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, MD and as Minister of Music and Liturgy at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, where she led the Concerts for Life, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for organizations supporting people with HIV/AIDS. She served as president of the American Guild of Organists, the third woman to hold that role since its founding in 1896.
Her media appearances include a PBS documentary on Christmas Carols with Amy Grant, the EMMY-Award winning film “Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story,” and the video “The Power of Spirituals,” a collaboration with the American Spiritual Ensemble.
Dr. Reiland Rabaka, Saturday morning plenary
Dr. Reiland Rabaka is the Founder and Director of the Center for African & African American Studies and Professor of African, African American, and Caribbean Studies in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is also a Research Fellow in the College of Human Sciences at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Dr. Rabaka has published 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles, book chapters, and essays, including most recently Civil Rights Music: The Soundtracks of the Civil Rights Movement; Black Power Music!: Protest Songs, Message Music, and the Black Power Movement; Black Women’s Liberation Movement Music: Soul Sisters, Black Feminist Funksters, and Afro-Disco Divas; The Hip Hop Movement; Hip Hip’s Amnesia; and Hip Hip’s Inheritance. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Science Foundation, the National Museum of African American History & Culture, the National Museum of American History, the Smithsonian Institution, the Eugene M. Kayden Book Award, the Cheikh Anta Diop Book Award, and the National Council for Black Studies’ Distinguished Career Award. His cultural criticism, social commentary, and political analysis has been featured in print, radio, television, and online media venues such as NPR, PBS, BBC, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, MTV, BET, VH1, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and USA Today, among others. He is also a poet, performing artist, and musician.
Breakout Session Schedule
Friday, May 12, 2023
Breakout Session I, 10:30am – 11:30am (60 minutes)
Trevon Hood & Timothy Miller
A Point of Return: The Morehouse College Glee Club in Nigeria
Kim R. Harris
Liturgical Healing Through Black Sacred Song
Conversation on Teaching the Context and Specific Histories of Spirituals
ECS = Engineering and Computer Science
Breakout Session II, 1:30pm – 2:30pm (60 minutes)
Anthony L. D. Scott
Healing by Secondary Intention: A Model for Racial Healing and Reconciliation as Demonstrated in the Medical Practice of Wound Care
REPARATIONS ROYALITIES: A practice of valuing the musical contributions of enslaved Africans to American worship and song
Breakout Session III, 3:00pm – 4:30pm (90 minutes)
Arthur C. Jones & Daryl J. Walker
The Healing Power of Spirituals: Singing, Education and Activism
Breaking Bread Together: How to Explore Spirituals to Provide Understanding and Healing
Saturday, May 13, 2023
Breakout Session IV, 10:30am – 11:30am (60 minutes)
M. Nicole Davis
Vox Populi: Hearing the African American Community Speak through Undine Smith Moore’s Scenes from the Life of a Martyr
A musical journey exploring the creation of Black Christianity
Jean E. Snyder
A Faith in The Ultimate Justice and Brotherhood of Man
"Liturgical Healing Through Black Sacred Song" by Dr. Kim R. Harris, PhD
Abstract: Servant of God Sister Thea Bowman, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration of La Crosse, Wisconsin, believed that the healing and justice of God includes racial justice for her people—African-Americans in the United States and persons of African descent around the world. She advocated for racial justice both within and beyond U.S. Black Catholic communities. This advocacy extended to the inclusion of Black historical and cultural traditions within liturgical gatherings. One aspect of Black Catholic liturgical-cultural inculturation, as researched, taught, and championed by Bowman, was the liturgical use of historic Black sacred song—the spirituals. The challenge and gifts Bowman presented to the Catholic Church of her time included her work on the first edition of the groundbreaking Black Catholic hymnal, Lead Me, Guide Me (1987). Her efforts for racial healing and justice reverberate to the present in the liturgical and musical scholarship, compositions, and practices of Black Catholic scholars, musicians, composers, and communities.
"REPARATIONS ROYALTIES: A practice of valuing the musical contributions of enslaved Africans to American worship and song" by Adam Waite
Abstract: Last fall, Denver Colorado’s historic Montview Boulevard Presbyterian Church - a predominately white, 1600 member PC(USA) congregation - embarked on a pilot program of “Reparations Royalties,” created and implemented by Montview’s Minister of Music, Adam Waite. A reparations royalty is the practice of valuing the musical contributions of enslaved Africans to worship music repertoire through regular community (congregation) supported payments. In his presentation, Adam Waite will discuss his own discernment process in creating the pilot program, how exactly the reparations royalty program works, and his reflections on how the Montview community, as well as other communities around the country, have experienced this important, necessary, practice. There will also be time for questions and discussion from presentation participants.
"A Faith In The Ultimate Justice And Brotherhood Of Man" by Dr. Jean E. Snyder
Abstract: In his Prefaces to the 1925 and 1926 Books of American Negro Spirituals, James Weldon Johnson wrote of the “softening down of some of the hard edges of prejudice against the Negro” that the Spirituals had effected since the Fisk Jubilee Singers first introduced them to northern audiences in in the 1870s. In the second and third decades of the twentieth century, this progress was advanced by Harry T. Burleigh’s publication of art-song arrangements, making the spirituals accessible to singers and music lovers of any ethnic background. Johnson credited Burleigh’s work as crucial: “Today the public buys the Spirituals, takes them home and plays and sings them . . . . The principal factor in reaching this stage has been H. T. Burleigh, the eminent musician and composer.” Johnson and Burleigh believed in the power of the Spirituals to bridge and heal the racial divide. Burleigh’s advice to singers on the inside cover of his spiritual arrangements emphasizes that they must be “done impressively,” because in these songs, “The cadences of sorrow invariably turn to joy, and the message is ever manifest that eventually deliverance from all that hinders and oppresses the soul will come, and man—every man--will be free.” This presentation examines how Johnson and Burleigh wrote and spoke of the power of the Spirituals to bring healing to America’s deepest wounds, and how, especially in two of his last songs, Burleigh’s brings his life’s work to a compelling consummation.
"Healing by Secondary Intention: A Model for Racial Healing and Reconciliation as Demonstrated in the Medical Practice of Wound Care" by Rev. Dr. Anthony L. D. Scott
Abstract: For centuries, discussion and action designed to facilitate racial healing have fallen woefully short of their stated goal. Often, conversation and action, led by credentialed experts and zealous amateurs alike, toward racial justice and/or reconciliation address only superficial manifestations of racism. This results in a temporary euphoria and resolve which fades when confronted by deep festering realities of the nature of racism, systemic and interpersonal, exercised in society. Wound care, as practiced in the medical profession, lends to discussion of racial reconciliation and/or justice a helpful framework for antiracist education and facilitation; healing by secondary intention which is practicable with theoretical consequence. Healing by secondary intention is a slow, and often times painful, practice wherein conditions are curated to the end that the wound will heal itself, from the depths of the trauma to the surface layer. This framework acknowledges the festering trauma that racism is to the body politic and encourages deliberate mining of the wound which allows for lasting healing, health, and homeostasis. The healing encouraged by such a framework is seldom broached because it is neither expedient nor is it euphoric. Healing by secondary intention requires readiness and resolve to persevere in addressing, in community, the emotional, spiritual, and often physical pain and separation caused by White Supremacy in the body politic and everybody’s body.
"Vox Populi: Hearing the African American Community Speak through Undine Smith Moore’s Scenes from the Life of a Martyr" by M. Nicole Davis
Abstract: Scenes from the Life of a Martyr was written by Undine Smith Moore, the Dean of Black Women Composers. The 16-part oratorio, composed in memory of Martin Luther King Jr., was published in 1982. Moore is well known for her adaptations of Spirituals and this piece is no exception. In this presentation, we will explore how Moore expertly utilizes tunes, text, and idioms from Spirituals to humanize the experiences of African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement.
"A Point of Return: The Morehouse College Glee Club in Nigeria" by Trevon Hood and Timothy Miller
Abstract: In 1972, the Morehouse College Glee Club first toured Nigeria with the support of the U.S. Department of State. After the tour, they brought home songs in Yorùbá that they have been singing ever since. In 2022, nearly forty Morehouse students and faculty returned to give concerts with Nigerian students that made the musical intersections of U.S. and Nigerian cultures abundantly clear. According to Uzee Brown, "It brought to my ear many sounds from my childhood; such a powerful statement of the cross-pollination between grassroots African American and African vocalisms!" Learning and performing spirituals with African Americans gave thousands of young people in Nigeria a much deeper understanding of the United States, its citizens, its history, and its culture.
"A musical journey exploring the creation of black Christianity" by Hubby Jenkins
Abstract: Early enslaved Africans were brought here with their own beliefs. For many enslavers, Christianity was not for the people they enslaved. How could someone who is less than human get into the same heaven as them? Time passes and attitudes begin to change. Missionaries like Francis Le Jau implored enslavers to baptize their captives. The Africans are given a vow that makes them deny any desire for freedom or disobedience. This is the time of the creation of Back Christianity - a Christian faith that must endure systemic oppression in America. Black Christianity would frame our morality, be a safe haven for our anger and desire for freedom, bolster the civil rights movement, as well as inspiring music and art. In my hour-long presentation, I will use traditional American music to tell the history of black Christianity’s perseverance, growth, and healing.
"The Healing Power of Spirituals: Singing, Education and Activism" by Arthur C. Jones, Ph.D. and Daryl J. Walker, M.Div.
Abstract: From its inception in 1998, the work of The Spirituals Project and Spirituals Project Choir have been organized around a commitment to validate a key part of The Spirituals Project’s ambitious guiding vision, which states that “Spirituals uplift in times of crisis, heal, comfort, inspire and instill hopes and dreams, thereby transforming individuals, communities, and whole societies.” This presentation will focus on some of the ways in which The Spirituals Project has attempted to honor that guiding vision, by integrating creative educational components into musical performances. We will summarize briefly some early research findings that validated the effectiveness of that approach. Utilizing short video clips, we also will focus on some of the Project’s forays into spiritually informed activism, including the exciting work of No Enemies, in which a core group of Spirituals Project Choir members worked in collaboration with the Denver Hip Hop group Flobots to demonstrate the ability of spirituals and other multi-cultural music genres to enhance the collective healing and social change efforts of contemporary social justice movements. At the end of the session, we will invite participants into a discussion of creative ways in which the three pillars of music performance, education and activism might continue to contribute to a process of healing the individual and societal wounds that have been deepened by the accelerating fractures in our current social and political environment.
"Conversation on Teaching the Context and Specific Histories of Spirituals" by Katelyn Peterson
Abstract: In music education, the performance of spirituals is often discussed, but the specifics of their social and historical aspects are often overlooked. Bringing greater awareness to the historical, social, and racial connection to the songs so frequently viewed as “fun, concert-closing, show-stopping,” and simply “entertaining” begins with a discussion of the history and importance of this musical genre. The inclusion of and teaching of songs born of enslaved Africans on American soil is crucial to our history, our practice, our connection with each other, and our past. How can we create an environment where spirituals are more than the notes on a page of music? As educators and advocates, how can we create an environment where spirituals are respected as songs of hope, healing, sorrow, pain, and honesty? This session is a conversation centered on the importance of respect, healing, and engaging with spirituals from someone seeking to learn beyond their own experiences.
"Breaking Bread Together: How to explore spirituals to provide understanding and healing" by Jazmin Salaberrios
Abstract: Author, philosopher, and physician Dabasish Mridha said, “Music can heal the wounds which medicine can not touch.” In my experience as an African American musician, however, I have found that glib performances, specifically of spirituals, can deepen and exacerbate wounds rather than heal them. I propose a workshop in which I advocate for careful contextualization and interpretation of these works, grappling with how we arrive at a purposeful interpretation, being so far removed from a spiritual’s inception. I will delve into a single selection, first by performing “Let us break bread together,” then by guiding participants through the interpretation process. How was the text derived? Is it biblical? Is it code? Is it a work song? After discussing the inception of the text, I will examine how the harmonies and structure link text and music together. For instance, are there any repetitions, patterns, text painting, key changes, or mode shifts? These elements can convey complex meaning beneath what is sometimes portrayed as superficial simplicity (e.g., when choirs sway, snap, and perform a spiritual as the “fun” number in their repertoire). Acknowledging deeper historical, textual, and musical insight, we will explore together how the complete message of this piece connects to our individual and corporate lives. Ultimately, I argue that our responsibility as teaching artists is to consider how history, text, and music work in tandem to convey collective meaning to listeners; this process can help eliminate a potentially offensive performance of a spiritual, leading instead to restoration and healing.
The final deadline to register is May 11.
The registration fee is $175.
For all University of Denver community members (students, faculty, staff) and members of The Spirituals Project, the registration fee is $0.
For non-DU students, the registration fee is $30.
For retirees and low-income individuals, the registration fee is $75.
Single-day registration (for retirees and low-income individuals) is available for $30/day.
We have partnered with several area hotels to secure a reduced rate. Please click here to find the list of participating hotels and instructions for how to reserve them at the discounted rate.
For transportation from your hotel to the conference, we are proud to offer discount codes through Uber and Lyft. Codes will be provided at a later date to registrants.