Got Spirit?

The Rev. Shaun Whitehead

St. Lawrence University Associate Chaplain the Rev. Shaun Whitehead, a South Side Chicago native, knows better than most that college students are unsure and possibly skeptical about the brick-and-mortar structures that are cloaked in organized religion. She knows firsthand that there are many conflicting assumptions that go along with what “the Church” is in America, and spirituality means something different to each individual.

“It is so interesting that we have this tension with the stunning beauty of the Gunnison Memorial Chapel. It is central to the campus,” says Whitehead, pointing out how the steeple acts as a point of reference for people both geographically and spiritually.

“You can determine where you are in a place, in town, by locating the steeple,” says Whitehead. “And, I know that, historically, in many places, maybe someone sees that steeple and they need to go the other way.” But for Whitehead, the work is to make sure that steeple is a beacon for anyone who needs it.

“Hopefully you see calm,” says Whitehead. “Hopefully something is drawing you in, whatever it is—the stained glass, the quiet space, the music—then hopefully you see somebody in there who drops something in your spirit.”
Although it isn’t specifically music that brought Whitehead to the North Country in 2003, it is music that has expanded her impact. Many people are drawn in by the power of her voice, literally, heard every Sunday during the Gospel Service both in song and in sermon.

“Well, I didn’t realize how much my voice would be a part of the ministry,” confesses Whitehead, who is responsible for establishing the annual gospel music workshop Got Spirit?, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary last February.

“When I first got here, they said, ‘Oh, and we have a gospel choir. We need you to work with them.’” Having grown up in the Black church tradition singing in the choir, Whitehead didn’t miss a beat.

“Oh yeah, I do gospel choir. I can do that,” says Whitehead with a chuckle. Four months after her first day on campus, the first gospel workshop was in motion and her good friend, Minister William R. Hamilton, a director and co-founder of the award-winning Chicago Mass Choir, was enlisted to join her in Canton, New York, and get people to sing traditional and contemporary black spirituals and gospel music together.

“The fact that St. Lawrence made room for these kinds of gifts, there was this creativity and this innovative kind of spirit happening anyway,” Whitehead says and feels she didn’t fully realize what exactly was happening, but she did know the power of music.

“I just know I like to gather people around singing because I know what singing can do,” she says. “Regardless of musical genres, religious affiliation or non-affiliation, political differences, ethnic origins, concert, or campfire, I know what making sound does. Music is this other universal language, as cliché as that may sound.”

“Singing is such an intimate act. There is this willingness and this kind of courageous vulnerability, if you will, to just go and put it out there in the universe and let it do whatever it needs to do with these people gathered here.”

Participation in the workshop includes people from all over the North Country of all faith traditions or none, and a number of people who travel from afar just to attend the four-day event. For Whitehead, it is not about being perfect: it is about being available. “That’s the question that the universe is always asking, ‘Are you available?’ Not, ‘Are you ready?’ Or, ‘Do you have it all together?’ The question is, ‘Are you available?’ Because things happen when you show up.”

And it is just showing up, in this place, that Whitehead feels is important to students, faculty, staff, and community. “I think we inform one another,” she says. “There are some churches today in America where the rules sometimes don’t make room for folks to love one another, let alone themselves.”
The chapel is a place where people can find their way. They can follow Whitehead’s voice if necessary.

“You are welcome in this place as you are,” says Whitehead. When working with students, her message is clear. This space belongs to them.

“Come and be. Don’t walk past this space for four years.This building says, ‘OK, come here to name that thing that you can only whisper. We can hear it. We can hear it,’” says Whitehead with conviction. “And if the spirit moves you, sing!”

Part I: A Spirited Bunch beginning with the Rev. Janet Legro '85

Part II: The Olympia Brown Factor: Rabbi Susan Talve '74

Previous: Jack of All Trades, the Rev. David Weissbard '62