By Selena Fragassi | For the Sun-Times
This year’s Gospel Music Festival will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a number of Chicago children when the homegrown Peace Choir opens the festivities Friday night at 6:30.
The 200-member group, led by gospel recording artist and former teacher and youth minister Cinque Cullar, is a conglomerate of youth choirs from churches on the South and West sides — among them St. Sabina, Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, Trinity and Sweet Holy Spirit — that furthers the history of the genre’s roots in the city.
CHICAGO GOSPEL MUSIC FESTIVAL When: 6:30-9:30 p.m. May 29, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. May 30 and 31 Where: Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph Admission: Free Info: chicagogospel musicfestival.us
It was founded five years when Cullar was St. Sabina’s youth minister and was born from a conversation with pastor and social activist Michael Pfleger. “There was so much violence in our communities and we came up with the idea of a Peace Jam for all the young adults across the Auburn Gresham area,” recalls Cullar. He organized a summer concert and invited both local youth and gospel singers from all over the country to join in the event, which was a success and has continued every year since.
In 2014, the Peace Choir had further exposure when it was called upon by famed gospel artist Dorinda Clark-Cole to sing at a conference she held in Chicago. It was here that Cullar met Gospel Fest organizers and eventually got the invitation for this year’s 30th anniversary program.
At the onset, the Peace Choir had 100 members, ages 10-18, and quickly grew to 200 children, “because so many people wanted to join,” says Cullar, who is now the program director for art and music at Salem Baptist Church.
He is quick to point out the significant benefits. “It teaches the children how to get along and promotes the ideas of teambuilding and teamwork. There’s a sense of accomplishment that this is something that they can be proud of,” he says. “And it also gets them off the streets because, to be honest with you, a lot of these kids have nowhere else to go. It gives them access to something that not only occupies their time but engrosses them.”
And, he says, “you should see them when they’re singing. The energy, the choreography, the movement. They go crazy.”
Of course faith plays a huge part, too. “Though many want to promote gospel as a genre, it started out from a place of hardship and having faith, which is what these kids are dealing with now.” He gives examples of one-word songs like “Help” and “Freedom” that he says “make the kids light up … and believe there is something that will protect them.”
That strikes a chord in Cullar, who in his formative years was a member of the touring Soul Children of Chicago. The life-changing experience allowed him to travel around the world and to the White House to perform. “One of my dreams is to be able to help these young people get exposed to different places, different churches, different stages,” he says. Though it will take significant financial backing (for now each child contributes about $10 to participate), Cullar hopes eventually a sponsor comes along. “I’d love to be able to do more with them and let them see the world because there’s a lot of young people everywhere really buying into gospel music and being uplifted by it.”