We Chicagoans live in a fabulous city…one visited by millions of tourists each year. But how often do we take advantage of the riches our own city has to offer? Rather than waiting until out-of-town friends and relatives come to visit, let’s occasionally pretend we’re also visitors by sampling the wonderfully cool things we’d do if we didn’t live here. Here’s the first post in my newly created series on the joys of being a ‘hometown tourist’ in Chicago.
When you grow up in Chicago as the granddaughter of a black Baptist pastor and daughter of amazingly talented church organist and pianist Farnell Jenkins, you tend to take great gospel music for granted. Every Sunday morning in churches all across the metro area, you’ll find rousing, spirit-filled choirs belting out contemporary and classic songs. But not everyone attends such a church or feels comfortable just dropping in. And sometimes you feel like hearing the ‘songs of Zion’ live on other days of the week.
That’s why the Spirit of Chicago Gospel Lunch Cruise that my dad and I recently took was such an incredible treat. Docked at Navy Pier, the elegant Spirit of Chicago cruises once a month through October and features the heavenly sounds of Tecora Rogers & the Chicago Spirituals. And they’ve been singing there for the past 10 years. With tickets starting at $49.90, it’s an affordable way to spend a glorious Saturday afternoon on the water.
In addition to enjoying two hours of live singing, praising and fellowship with each other, guests enjoy a bounteous, all-you-can-eat buffet…everything from rich pasta dishes and meaty short ribs to fresh fish and, of course, dessert. (VIP tickets include complimentary bar beverages.) And because you’re on an elegant day cruise that goes south on Lake Michigan to Museum Campus and north toward the John Hancock Center, the city’s jaw-dropping skyline provides an incredible backdrop for this culturally rich music. (Check out this brief video of Tecora Rogers & the Chicago Spirituals singing the gospel classic “I’ll Fly Away” during our cruise.)
Some guests come dressed in their Sunday best; others are decked out like they were going to an evening concert or a Tyler Perry onstage production at Arie Crown Theater. Many come in sizable groups from area African-American churches. Some couples use the cruise to celebrate their wedding anniversaries. One couple that hailed from Australia took in the Gospel Cruise before returning ‘down under.’
When Ms. Rogers learns that international tourists are in the house, “I try to get them up. Even if they don’t know the words, they can clap.” As someone who does gospel music workshops across Europe, she’s got an engaging, friendly spirit — and it comes through during the cruise.
Ms. Rogers invites cruisers to sing along, reminding folks that even though they’re not in a religious building, they can feel free to “have church.” Through lively gospel songs such as “We Lift Our Hands in the Sanctuary,” “My God Is Awesome” (by Pastor Charles Jenkins of Chicago’s historic Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church, no less), and old-school favorites such as Walter Hawkins’ “Thank You.” Tecora Rogers & the Chicago Spirituals kept folks swaying, waving their hands and saying “Amen” throughout the afternoon.
But this isn’t just a performance…guests may also participate in the praise. Ms. Rogers invited choir members in the audience to join her group on the floor where she and the singers were standing. Then she called those who serve as church ushers, deacons, trustees, ministers — and regular “pew members” — to take part in an impromptu sing-along. She and husband Neal Harper led the group (and those sitting and dining in their seats) in a medley of traditional congregational songs including “What a Fellowship,” “Down by the Riverside” and “Get Right Church.”
Chicago is the perfect backdrop for a cruise like this, as the Windy City has an incredibly rich gospel music history. Chicago was home to Thomas Dorsey, the legendary songwriter and composer who became known worldwide as the father of gospel music, thanks to classics like “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” Chicago also can claim the one-and-only gospel icon and civil rights activist Mahalia Jackson, who actually was a long-time member of my grandfather’s Greater Salem Baptist Church on the South Side. (As a teenager, my dad Farnell had the privilege of accompanying her on piano during a church revival.)
Growing up in Chicago, my sister and I were constantly treated to my dad’s gospel writing and playing, as he was the Minister of Music at the Oakdale Covenant Church for nearly 30 years. During that time, he recorded I’ve Found the Answer (1976) and Use Me Lord (1982) albums with Oakdale’s choirs and Farnell Jenkins and the Jesus Experience with two gospel musician friends. All these years later, the music and the message still sounds fresh.
That’s also probably why Ms. Rogers, Mr. Harper, and singers Marilyn Hearns and Stephanie Banks have proved so popular with Spirit of Chicago Gospel Lunch Cruise audiences for the past decade. Many of those who come have sung the same songs for decades at their own churches, making a Saturday out on Lake Michigan feel like old home week. Since many churches make food a centerpiece of their ministries, the fact you can leisurely enjoy a delicious lunch buffet while feeding your soul is a lovely thing. And even if you’ve never heard a single one of these tunes, start clapping and swaying and you’ll fit right in.
That’s what I love about gospel music: whether you’re filthy rich or dead broke, whether you make it to church each week or never go, it’s a great equalizer. Those who allow the music and the Spirit’s message to touch their hearts find themselves responding, regardless of age, social class or race. And you don’t have to be a Christian to feel it, either.
In fact, Rogers & the Chicago Spirituals are headed to Russia on Sept. 22, where they’ll spend three weeks working with four choirs across that country. With a full band in tow, they’ll play concert halls and in Russian churches. Says Mr. Harper: “They are thirsty for American art forms — jazz and gospel. We’re going to bring it as hard as we can.”