GREAT LAKES BEACON

Advocating Through Art: The Social Justice Choir of Grand Rapids

Claire Minnis always knew she wanted to direct a choir, but she never thought she would be able to combine that with her passion of working with nonprofits and political advocacy.

However, the collision of her passions became a reality when she was hired as the choir director at Trinity United Methodist Church, which was enthused by her idea to create a “social justice choir.” As far as the church was concerned,  it paired well with the organization’s mission to be a progressive and inclusive “church without walls,” Minnis explained.

“I was very forward with them when they hired me that my focus is in social justice, and they said that’s a part of their mission,” she said in an interview with the Great Lakes Beacon. “It was within the first week I got here that we were able to start doing that foundational work, in June, in creating the mission and what we wanted to make this (choir) out to be.”

They posted their idea on social media, and within about two weeks, more than 150 people had expressed their interest and support in creating what has become the Social Justice Choir, Minnis said.

The choir is now between 20 and 30 people, she said, and less than five of them are connected to the church in some way. Some even come as far as Holland – a roughly 45-minute drive – to be part of the group.

Minnis’ interest in music started young. Both her parents were musicians, she said, so she played in band, sang in choirs and decided in high school she wanted to be a choir director.

But her interest in social justice issues started early too, she said. Her parents divorced when she was eight years old, and within a year, both had come out as gay.

“We were closeted as a family the whole time I lived in Missouri,” she said of her upbringing. Both her parents held jobs that forced her parents to be silent about their true identity early on, especially as it is still legal in Missouri, as it is in Michigan, to fire an employee for their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“When I got to move out of that environment and into a place with more liberal ideas, then I finally had the freedom to advocate for oppressed communities,” Minnis said.

She had become involved in advocacy work both in the LGBTQ community and in interfaith work while she was doing her undergraduate studies in Illinois, she said.

“I kind of caught that bug of working with nonprofits and advocacy,” Minnis said.

After graduating college, she began teaching in the St. Louis area, and was eventually approached to direct an adult community choir that had lost its funding and support.

“But the singers still wanted to sing, and I still wanted to direct, so we went rogue and figured the rest out as time went on,” Minnis said.

Her school offered a venue to rehearse, but even when it found community partners to support performances, the choir “decided collectively that putting on these concerts for ourselves wasn’t enough,” she said. And that was when it all came together as she had always envisioned, she recalled.

The group partnered with a local church on a concert that raised over $1,000, all of which was donated to The International Institute of St. Louis, which helps immigrants and refugees relocating to the United States.

Minnis would go on to become the artistic director of the St. Louis Women’s Chorus, whose commitment to social justice combined with volunteerism made it an agent for social change in the St. Louis area, even receiving an invitation to perform at the Women’s March on St. Louis and other community events.

Minnis is hoping to create similar success and change in West Michigan.

The Social Justice Choir of Grand Rapids’ first performance will be on November 19 at 4 p.m. It will be an interfaith concert with donations supporting the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University. The Kaufman Institute will put on an interfaith celebration on November 20 that seeks to bring together people of various faiths for collective good and recognizance of what binds people together, rather than what separates them.

The Social Justice Choir will then have concert in March in support of food justice and ensuring no child goes hungry. It will have another event in June, during LGTBTQ Pride week, in support of that cause.

“(The benefiting organizations) have to be meaningful to the community we live in,” Minnis said. “To start this first year, I tried to choose issues that already have a strong following. Since we’re brand new, we want to connect ourselves with ideas that are already well-supported in our community so we can raise awareness of us and the issues at the same time.”

She added, “We also … really wanted to choose issues that would bring people together, because we think that’s important with our current political and social climate – to find issues we can work on for social justice together.”

Audience members and participants of the choir are asked to give “as they see fit” per show, she said, as the over-arching goal is to help out organizations and community partners already doing good work in the community.

Danielle Emerson

Danielle Emerson