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Uplifting gospel choir to give food pantry a lift

Over 40 gospel singers will ring the rafters of St. Francis Catholic Church in Ellsworth next month to help fill the shelves of Pierce County's food pantry.

"The Travelin' Shoes Gospel Choir" will present a 7 p.m. concert Sunday, Feb. 11, in the church, located at 231 Woodworth St. If there's bad weather, the concert would be rescheduled to the following Sunday, Feb. 18.

"The food pantry is no longer funded by the county and must rely on donations and grants," Commodity Clerk Fred Finstad said Thursday about a tightened budget for Pierce County. A free will offering will be taken.

The approximately hour-long event will feature a group of people who've organized, rehearsed and performed for various area causes within the past year, Director Dave Zahn said. They range in age from 15 to the late 70s; two-thirds are women. Although they often appear at churches, they're focused on community.

"We're a bunch of Swedes and Norwegians singing black music," Zahn said.

For musical material, the director draws on his experience growing up near the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul, where he and friends spent countless hot summer Sundays outdoors listening to the "fantastic" singing coming from wide-open churches, he said. He's also haunted record stores and searched the internet for background for brief monologues he delivers during the concerts.

The group's type of music tells stories, some uplifting and others tragic, he said. It's rooted in slavery and reflects how slaves seized upon religion to cope. For example, the song "Every Day Will Be Sunday" expresses their vision of heaven because Sunday was the only day of the week they had for themselves, allowed to tend to their own gardens. "Won't Turn Back" is an account of escaping slavery via the underground railroad. "Death Come A' Knockin," about a subject slaves didn't necessarily view negatively but sometimes embraced as a welcome relief, inspired the choir's name.

"It has a line about putting on travelin' shoes," he said, crediting Judy Krohn of the group for suggesting it.

Zahn, a veteran of rock n'roll and rhythm-and-blues bands and a piano technician by trade, said he does the arrangements for the choir. The songs aren't always tailored to a large number of voices, so he changes them to fit, being careful not to dilute their meanings.

The members rehearse on Sundays, with some of those among them who were initially hesitant to sing now indicating they look forward to their participation. He said he doesn't intimidate, having singers who can help others be stationed nearby and encouraging everyone to be aggressive about joining in on a song--even if it means chancing that will happen at the wrong time. The audition process is no more complicated than being able to acknowledge one's own name.

"Don't read music?...It doesn't matter," he said, explaining people usually pick up on their parts through listening and, besides, the slaves of whom they sing weren't allowed to read anything.

When begun early last year, Zahn said he expected the choir to attract eight, perhaps 10 members. Then, the first organizational meeting was held and 26 people came. A total of 54 are presently on the roster, with between 45 and 50 typically showing up for concerts. A van full of people from the Hager City-Red Wing area are regulars, as is a woman from Rochester, Minn. An African drummer and a flute player are recent additions.

Zahn said he directs from a keyboard and donated sound equipment to the group. The United Lutheran Church in Red Wing donated 61 choir robes, which have benefited from the seamstress skills among the membership. Teri Christianson of Red Wing has made posters promoting the upcoming Ellsworth concert.

The first concert last March was in Pepin, supporting youth going on a mission trip. Around $3,000 for the Crisis Nursery (a short-term child care assistance effort) was raised at a concert in Red Wing. Others have been held in Wabasha, Minn., Alma and Durand, where Pepin County's food shelf was helped.

"People who normally wouldn't touch religion come," he said of the packed houses, believing many realize choir members are "walking the walk." He remembered a couple of youths who reluctantly agreed to attend, ending up singing "Love Train" (one of the choir's numbers) during their ride home.

Two large churches in Minneapolis are interested in hosting the group, the director said. At Ellsworth's concert, all proceeds will go to Pierce County's food pantry, he assured. Area churches have been asked to sponsor a light lunch afterward. The county's Office on Aging is willing to provide transportation for anyone wanting to attend who doesn't have access to it otherwise and can be contacted at 273-6780.

The Travelin' Shoes Gospel Choir will appear in concert Sunday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. at St. Francis Catholic Church in Ellsworth. For more information, call Harland Schultz at 792-2924.