Heritage Music Day: Evolution of Gospel


This is an oldie but goodie; this song “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness is from the “Evolution of Gospel” album, and it holds amazing memories for me. I was a camp counselor at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, the oldest (and most radical) Episcopal church in Harlem, New York City, and the self chosen spiritual home off my youth. It was there, on 126th Street and Old Broadway / St, Mary’s place that I took my first communion, I first interacted with live chickens and turkeys, served on the altar, and sang in the junior choir. I learned that it is good to be a P.I.T.A. (pain in the ass) to oppressive authority (thanks to then head priest Rev. Robert Castle, (Jonathan Demme’s cousin), and I learned to open my heart, mind and social space to people who live without homes, and with HIV/AIDS. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church taught me deep compassion for people, and each week I witnessed unconditional acceptance as people of many persuasions served on the altar, sometimes to the displeasure of the Cardinal. St. Mary’s Episcopal ushered me into a noble adulthood that I cherish to this day.

In 1993, I served as a summer camp counselor, and we created a closing ceremony for our campers that required all camp staff and students to take part. We all marched and danced to this song together, and it caused us to share and develop a deep appreciation for that moment in time with every replay of the song during our many weeks of rehearsal. The adult camp counselor with the greatest seniority, Tim Collins passed not too long after our summer camp, but I remember his humor, his candor, his loving family and well….his candor 🙂 He was the glitter on many of my summer moments. Although he left us, he also left an indelible mark that I remember every time I play this song.

I share this song with you almost 20 years later because it still moves me. I still sensorially reconnect with St. Mary’s altar, where I served as altar girl, choir member and camp counselor. Everyone has challenging and heavy days that seem endless and consuming, but the Sounds of Blackness tell us “You can win! As long as you keep your head to the sky!” I remember Tim chose this song. Although it seems difficult today, remember that tomorrow is a new day, and it holds infinite possibilities for happiness. “Keep, keep on…”

Sounds of Blackness was ahead of their time, with the video, the mixture of choreography traditions and their sound. They paved the way for many other interpretations of gospel music. I am lucky to have had them as a soundtrack to my early youth, I thank Tim for the timeless advice he offered us all through this song, and I am so grateful to St. Mary’s Church for being such a safe space in my early years. Even now when I read the blog or occasionally call the new head Priest Father Kooperkamp,all I feel, hear and think of is “home”. St. Marys was an incredible place to grow up back in the day! This song holds all this profundity for me, accessible via a simple mouse-click in iTunes. I hope you enjoy it, even half as much as I do.

Shawndel

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