Williston woman gears up for GospelFest

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

After attending GospelFest once, Cathie Goodheart became a gospel music convert.

“You just wanted to get up and dance and sing,” Goodheart said. “I just remember the enthusiastic crowd and the high energy of the singers on stage and I don’t know – it just drew me in.” The Williston resident said that night in 2002, she’d wanted to be on stage, too.

This Sunday will mark Goodheart’s fourth time on the Flynn Center stage with GospelFest, an annual performance in Burlington honoring Black History Month. In its sixteenth year, the two-hour event is presented by the New Alpha Missionary Baptist Church. That church’s adult gospel and children’s choir and the Burlington Ecumenical Gospel Choir, of which Goodheart is a member, perform. This year members of the Plattsburgh State Gospel Choir will join them.

“It’s great for kids, too, because there’s a children’s choir,” Goodheart said, adding that her three- and four-year-old grandchildren went last year. “They loved it. They were dancing in the aisles.”

GospelFest began in 1990 as part of Black History Month celebrations at the University of Vermont, according to Wanda Heading-Grant, who has been involved with GospelFest for 15 years.

Reverend Rodney Patterson, a UVM administrator, and a few other s passionate about gospel music were behind the event’s startup, Heading-Grant said. They “felt like ( Burlington) was an area where you just didn’t hear spirituals and jubilees – not on Christian radio stations, not at other events and venues,” she said. “We felt like there was an audience.”

And there was. About a decade ago, audiences were in the 500-range; last year the audience was over 1,300, Heading-Grant said. Interest in performing also has grown. In GospelFest’s first year, there were about 25 performers, Heading-Grant said. Now, the Burlington Ecumenical Gospel Choir includes about 130 singers and the children’s choir has 22 singers.

The Burlington Ecumenical Gospel Choir comes together only to perform in GospelFest each year and is open to everyone. Members are from many religious denominations; some have no religious affiliation. The racial backgrounds of its members also vary.

Nationally there also has been rising interest in secular and religious gospel. Gospel music sales in the United States increased more than 80 percent between 1995 and 2004, according to the Gospel Music Association’s Web site. Music sales at non-Christian outlets doubled in that period, according to the association.

Goodheart said she’d had very little exposure to gospel music prior to attending GospelFest. And, she admits, she wasn’t much of a singer.

“I’m a shower singer,” Goodheart said. “When I found out you didn’t have to try out, I was relieved.”

Goodheart said rehearsals of the Burlington Ecumenical Gospel Choir – four times a month since early November – are an “accepting place,” not just for those of different singing abilities.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for folks to come together with others from different backgrounds, and to appreciate Black History Month,” Goodheart said.

That appreciation includes an understanding of the origins of gospel music itself, Heading-Grant said. Black gospel music traces part of its origins from songs sung by slaves, and later from free but segregated blacks, as quiet protest; the genre’s roots also come from call-and-repond interactions between church preachers and congregants, according to several online encyclopedias. The Civil Rights Movement took a number of its protest songs from the gospel tradition.

“GospelFest is exactly what it’s supposed to be,” Heading-Grant said. “A time to come together, to honor and praise and worship our forefathers as well as to dance and sort of give testimony among all of those things, and hopefully impact another generation.”

The event is also testimony to how a few people can reach many.

“This little church in Burlington – a small congregation – has brought this event to this community for almost 16 years,” Heading-Grant said, referring to New Alpha Missionary Baptist Church that has 40 to 50 active members. “It’s just little old us.”

Each year the event just breaks even financially.

“We’re not some big franchise,” Heading-Grant said. “The only way we can continue to do it is from the support of the extended larger community when they come out to support us.”