The Chicago Children’s Choir is a multiracial, multicultural choral music education organization, shaping the future by making a difference in the lives of children and youth through musical excellence.
The late Reverend Christopher Moore founded the multiracial, multicultural Chicago Children’s Choir in October 1956 at Hyde Park’s First Unitarian Church. He built it on the belief that youngsters from diverse backgrounds could better understand each other—and themselves—by learning to make beautiful music together. Today’s Choir is fully independent and serves all of Chicago from its home in the Chicago Cultural Center. Christopher Moore’s vision of a Choir that combines high artistic standards with a social purpose continues to define the Choir’s mission.
What began as a small church choir is now America’s largest, most comprehensive organization devoted to the musical education of children. The Choir’s diverse repertoire includes classical works, American spirituals and folk songs from around the world. All music is performed in its original language. Unlike traditional children’s choirs the Chicago Children’s Choir is comprised of Treble and Chamber Ensembles, Men’s Chorus and a Show Choir. Nearly 3,000 children, ages four through eighteen, participate in the Choir’s unique three-part program within forty Chicago schools (In-School Program), four neighborhood choirs (After-School Program) and the world-renowned Concert Choir.
Teach the World to Sing:
Moore as Community Minister
Because community ministers often occupy the spaces between communities, religions, and worldviews, one of their most important jobs is convincing us that what unites us is deeper than what divides us. The Rev. Chris Moore has taught thousands of Chicago children that lesson using a simple idea that has blossomed into an internationally-acclaimed institution.
Moore would go on to found one of the most effective community outreach organizations in Unitarian Universalist history. Moore himself had only modest aspirations when he started a children’s choir at Hyde Park’s First Unitarian Society of Chicago. But Moore had been raised by a mother deeply involved with the Unitarian Service Committee’s work in Navajo reservations and Nigeria, and grew up equating Unitarianism with internationalism and the need for understanding across boundaries of all kinds.
Eight years before Moore’s arrival, the church had passed a resolution encouraging its members “to invite our friends of other races and colors who are interested in Unitarianism to join our church.” When Moore banded together a dozen children for First Unitarian’s church choir, he intentionally drew them not only from the relatively affluent Hyde Park neighborhood surrounding the church, but also from the economically depressed African American neighborhoods that bordered it. He built his choir on the belief that children from diverse backgrounds could better understand each other—and themselves—by learning to make beautiful music together. His intent was not to obviate the children’s cultures, but create a common ground for those cultures to interact and possibly harmonize. From the beginning, the choir’s repertoire included classical works, American spirituals, and folk songs from around the world, all in their original language. By 1960, Moore was recruiting singers from parochial and public schools.
Parish minister Rob Eller-lsaacs joined the choir in 1958, when he was just seven years old. “What was so powerful about the experience of singing in the choir,” he recalls, “was the combination of making excellent music and the visceral experience of harmony, both literal and figurative. Here we were, middle-class kids from the chronically overeducated Hyde Park, getting to know and become friends with kids who lived in the projects. Kids from all over the city. Not out of noblesse oblige, but out of a common commitment to musical excellence.”
By the time Moore died in 1987, the choir he founded was growing into the independent Chicago Children’s Choir, now the largest youth choral education program in the United States. Moore’s 12-member church choir has grown into an organization reaching almost 3,000 Chicago-area children who sing in 68 choirs at 44 schools, 4 diverse neighborhood afterschool programs, and a 125-member Concert Choir. The singers reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of the city’s schools. Although 90 percent of these schools serve economically or socially distressed neighborhoods, virtually all of the members of the Concert Choir go on to college.
The Choir has grown in stature as well as size. It’s now an independent nonprofit organization with an operating budget of $1.7 million. It has shared the stage with Pavarotti, the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and performed for the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela. The Concert Choir has toured Great Britain, Italy, Ukraine, South Africa, Canada, Russia, Japan, and Israel.
The Choir is deliberately constructed to expand awareness in both its members and audiences. Unitarian Universalist parish minister Mark Morrison-Reed was one of the first people of color to join the choir, and notes, “In the beginning it meant being one of a few Negroes in a sea of white. It meant awkward situations, embarrassment and an acute self-consciousness; I bore the pain and had no way of naming much less understanding it.” For all that the choir attempted to undo the harms of racism and segregation, it could not completely overcome them in the lives of the children it served. Still, Morrison-Reed notes, “The choir opened worlds that otherwise would have been closed to me.” Four ministers, in fact, point to the Choir as the force that steered them to their vocations: the Revs. Robert Eller-lsaacs, Sidney Morris, Mark Morrison-Reed, and Thomas Yondorf.
Because of the Choir, Eller-Isaacs knew that he wanted to be a minister by the time he was 12. Already deeply respectful of Moore’s vision at that age, he says, “I began to understand that the church had provided him with both a place and a kind of financial and spiritual support to do this work. Church could be a cradle for these kinds of community ministries. I decided to focus my efforts on nurturing the church itself, so that it might become a more effective instrument for community ministry in the larger world.”
Like many, Eller-Isaacs believes that parish and community ministries have the most power and potential when they are affiliated with one another. Community ministry is not just the work of a few individuals, but of the UU movement and all of its members. “We have great need of community ministers,” he says. “We haven’t been as aware of them as we should, or as supportive as we should. Community ministers are people in the midst of our congregations who wake us up to the world outside our walls. They remind the larger society of spiritual and ethical values that are often otherwise marginalized or ignored.”
Community ministry is sometimes undervalued and often underpaid. Believing strongly in the importance of UU community ministry, the UU Veatch Program at Shelter Rock has made a priority of providing what funding it can. “Community ministry directly speaks to so many of our principles, particularly the respect for the interdependent web and promotion of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations,” says Marjorie Fine, the executive director. “Community ministry grows Unitarian Universalism in terms of meaning.”
— By John Millspaugh, from “Community Ministry Takes Many Forms,” UU World, September/October 2001
Moore’s 25th Anniversary Report
of the Harvard College Class of 1950
THEOLOGICAL studies came first after Harvard. My side enthusiasm remained choral music and I founded a glee club at the University of Chicago when I found that no music organization then on that campus offered the kind of familial club enjoyment that Harvard Glee Club had represented. Three years at the University of Chicago were followed by two in St. Louis as associate minister of the Unitarian Church there. I continued musical activities on the side and as part of the job. I then returned to Harvard to study with Paul Tillich and to take a degree at Harvard Divinity School. This also allowed a further year singing with Harvard Glee Club under G. Wallace Woodworth. I returned to Meadville Theological School and the University of Chicago to continue advanced studies in theology and supposedly on the side, was invited by Chicago’s First Unitarian Church to organize a really good children’s choir. A year later I turned down the invitation I had to go for the Ph.D. at Harvard in favor of staying at Chicago, and my delightful side slipping into music was underway. In its third season Chicago Children’s Choir (then still called the Children’s Choir of the First Unitarian Church) became the group to serve the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. One summer in Europe was followed by a second and those adventures included coming under the spell and tutelage of Dr. Ferdinand Grossmann of the Vienna Music Academy. This person was then, as he had been for decades, the true genius behind the Vienna Choir Boys and a variety of other Austrian choral music institutions. Our choir became the singing children for Chicago’s Lyric Opera the season after I met Grossmann. A couple of dozen grade school youngsters singing an hour a week had by now become several dozen singing four or more hours each week with a tonal stance that, legend always had it, could only grow on European soil.
In the early nineteen sixties I undertook formal musical studies at the University of Chicago to fill holes in my formal background. I became a minister of First Church and the assistant to Meadville’s president in the late fifties. These assignments were juggled singly and together over a period of years but the choir remained the special project: In exploring the uses the choir could offer its community, the inclusion of inner city minority youngsters, for what this could do for everyone involved, became the priority new direction. The choir assisted in the birth and development of Urban Gateways, an unusual citizen’s program to share the arts, all the arts, with youngsters and families with special priority to minorities and those with low income. In the context, the name Chicago’s Children’s Choir came to identify the choral program as the increase in numbers and quality continued.
In the early sixties my affection settled on an Oberlin graduate who came to Chicago for a professional degree. For the peculiar reasons that included an “indentured service or pay it back” clause in her graduate fellowship we waited until 1964 to march to the altar (to choral music by you guessed who and an anthem by classmate Gilman Collier, the best man). The further pause before Jonathan joined us gave us our own identity before starting the child rearing. It will be some time before we have a collegian.
Meanwhile the choir continued to flourish and began traveling in the United States and then abroad. It is now some five-hundred voices in a graded series of units, by readiness, not age, that allows the talented nine year-olds to work with older teens. A particularly poignant moment came in 1969 when the choir made a summer trip to New England. It was presented in a Yard concert for the Harvard summer school by G. Wallace Woodworth. The lecture-discussion and demonstration we were to share with him took place without him; a day later for he had already been stricken. We were still in Cambridge when he died and stayed over to participate in the service at Memorial Church. Through his influence, musical and personal, on the lives of others, he has many memorials; Chicago Children’s Choir is one of them. It is one grateful student’s response to his annual admonition to seniors that they “carry the bucket of culture with them” to whatever corner of the world their paths took them.
I have been deeply concerned about this country and the world in which we live. My way of attempting to help change it has been working with children and youth in and through music to assist them to a deeper understanding of the whole process of building and maintaining a culture that nourishes and ministers to its people. When dozens upon dozens of youngsters across the usual generation gaps and in ever changing groups come to take responsibility for themselves, each other and their teams, and when that process includes the sons and daughters of classmates and others equally fortunate side by side with street kids and those of every imaginable background and circumstance, and nothing is of importance but the persons themselves and what they are about together, then I begin to feel that there may be some substance to that American Dream of the open society that we have so often preferred to mouth rather than to accept to live.
Our family is on the line, living in the heart of a large city, and we intend to stay. We often wish we could move Chicago to the Rockies, the West Coast or the Alps but we have no wish to migrate ourselves to the suburbs because we have a feeling that the cities are where our civilization stands or falls and that the real frontiers of our times are not in the wilderness but in the heart of our inner cities. As a high school age visitor I once vowed that Chicago was the last place I wanted to live, so where did I land? I have been here all but three years of the time since college but I remain excited by what needs doing and what can be done in this setting, and I have few if any regrets.