Published on December 8, 2022 by Tracy Hanrahan  
MGSA Amahl photo

As the cast of Saturday’s matinee performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors took their bows in Samford University’s Harrison Theatre, a group of 27 guests from Coy, Alabama, joined the rest of the audience in enthusiastic applause. For most of the students and adults from the Mt. Gilead Scholastic and Artistic (MGS&A) Institute in Coy, Samford Opera’s presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors was their first experience attending an opera. It was not, however, their first experience making music and enjoying community with many of the Amahl cast and orchestra members.

Grow Your Own

The Mt. Gilead Scholastic and Artistic Institute was founded in 2012 by the Rev. Dr. Stanford Angion, pastor of Mt. Gilead Missionary Baptist Church. When Angion consistently found himself struggling to enlist musicians to lead in worship, he says the Lord gave him the idea to “grow your own.” He first recruited a professional musician from neighboring Selma, Alabama to teach his daughters piano lessons. Since that time, the program has grown to include lessons in piano, guitar, percussion, and voice with students from across the area enrolled. Several early MGS&A students now serve as instructors.

The partnership between MGS&A and Samford University began in fall 2020 as an intentional effort in community based service learning. As Center for Worship and the Arts Program Manager and a 2020 Mann Center Fellow in Community Based Learning, I had the opportunity to design the experiential educational activity to purposefully provide reciprocal student learning and community service opportunities. MGS&A students and instructors learn from Samford students, while Samford students, faculty and staff learn from MGS&A students and instructors, and all experience cultural differences and new communities they may not otherwise engage.

“The partnership between Samford University and MGS&A Institute which provides the children of Coy, Alabama, with performing arts training and a variety of cultural experiences is invaluable to youth development,” according to Angion. “It is a good model for others to emulate.”

Sophomore worship leadership major Grant May seems to have caught Angion’s vision. “In a time of need,” May says, “the program was created, and it has been massively successful due to the amazing workers, volunteers, and the obvious blessing of God. I’ve been inspired by the initiative taken to create this amazing program and hope to implement some of the same heart and drive in my own ministry.”

Samford University/MGS&A Institute Music Exchange

Fifteen Samford music students participated in the MGS&A Music Exchange Cadre this fall, which is offered in partnership with the Office of Student Affairs and the Center for Worship and the Arts. School of the Arts faculty member, Dr. Beth McGinnis, who serves as Coordinator for Community Music Initiatives and Assistant Professor of Musicology, embedded the cadre in two of her classes as an optional assignment. Including the cadre as part of a class, both this semester and in past years, has made participation more accessible for music students whose schedules are busier than the average college student.

Participating students travel to Coy at least twice during the semester to serve on Saturday morning MGS&A performing arts days. When not part of the travel group, cadre participants watch videos of their classmates’ experiences in Coy and write reflections on what they observe.

While MGS&A’s regular instructors offer lessons in piano, drums, guitar, and choir, Samford students lead a general music/music theory class. Each Saturday session ends with a group worship and sharing time during which one or two Samford music students performs music from their primary performance areas, followed by leaders from Coy teaching the visiting Samford group a worship song.

Sophomore commercial music major Emerie Ediger, a first-time music exchange cadre participant, said the large group worship times were the best part of the experience for her. “This gave us an opportunity to learn from the staff at MGS&A. They would teach us the songs they were working on through call and response, singing us the parts and having us repeat back to them. It was a new experience to learn music in this way, rather than reading it off sheet music. But, I loved seeing this new perspective on the songs. Whenever we sang and worshiped God together as a group, you could feel the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in that room. Music is a unique force that can bring together people from all backgrounds,” Ediger said.

Abby Rossnagel, sophomore worship leadership major, agrees. “I have grown up around a lot of different traditions and worship styles but never a predominantly African American church. It was so exciting to learn how people in a different environment than I grew up in worship. I especially liked the call and response theme in their songs. It is a very communal way to worship and is very inviting.”

Beyond the Music

MGS&A Program Director Susan Wilson says one of her favorite parts of the partnership is exposing the institute’s students to different genres of music. “For Samford to sponsor our youth to see Amahl and the Night Visitors was the proverbial icing on the cake. The students and chaperones were so excited to be part of this great event. I think the highlight of the day for me was when Zariyah, a second grader, pointed to the orchestra and said, ‘Mrs. Susan, I see Sam. I want to play a bassoon like him.’” Sam Gravlee, a junior music education major whose primary instrument is bassoon, has traveled to Coy several times as part of the cadre. Mrs. Wilson says seeing Samford students perform on campus helped MGS&A students make an important connection between the instrument demonstrations in Coy and the ways Samford students contribute to larger performances.

Near the end of Amahl and the Night Visitors as the three kings are sleeping, Amahl’s mother, desperate to provide for her son, is caught stealing gold from among the gifts intended for the child king her “night visitors” were on their way to worship. The lyrics sung by King Melchior in response to the mother’s actions sum up both the intention and result thus far of the Samford University/MGS&A Music Exchange cadre:

Oh, good woman, you may keep the gold.

The child we seek doesn’t need our gold.

On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom…

The beauty of the music exchange program involves much more than just music. While members of both communities have much “gold” to offer and to receive from one another, the lasting gift and foundation upon which the partnership is built is love.

Learn more by listening to “Hear in Alabama: Grow Your Own” by Dr. Beth McGinnis as she speaks with Rev. Dr. Stan Angion, Pastor of Mt. Gilead Missionary Baptist Church in Coy, Alabama, and Tracy Hanrahan of Samford University about the remarkable Mt. Gilead Scholastic & Artistic Institute.