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The Spirituals Project National Conference: Healing 2023

TSP conference

May 11-13, 2023

A REAP (Research, Education, Activism, Performance) conference hosted by The Spirituals Project of the University of Denver

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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:

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  • Conference Schedule

    Register Now

    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: Reiland Rabaka
    10:30 AM  Breakout session IV (60 min.)
    12:00 PM  Lunch on your own
    7:30 PM    Gala Concert featuring The Spirituals Project Choir


    Schedule subject to change

  • Speakers

    Dr. James Forbes, Keynote

    Dr. James Forbes

    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.


    Eileen Guenter, Friday morning plenary

    Dr. Eileen Guenther

    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.


    Reiland Rabaka, Saturday morning plenary

    Reiland Rabaka

    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.

  • Registration
    Early Bird Registration

    Register by March 1 and pay a reduced registration fee of $125.


    Regular Registration

    The full registration fee is $175. The final deadline to register is May 11. 


    Special Registration

    For all University of Denver community members (students, faculty, staff) and members of The Spirituals Project, the registration fee is $0.


    Discount registration

    For retirees, low-income individuals, and non-DU students, the registration fee is $75. Single-day registration is also available at $30/day. 

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  • Hotel Bookings

    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. 

  • Transportation

    For transportation from your hotel to the conference, we are proud to offer discount codes through Uber and Lyft. Codes will be provided when you register.