THIEF RIVER FALLS - The Lincoln High School Gospel Choir practices what it sings.
Members of the choir, made up of 109 students in grades 10 through 12, believe that treating people with dignity, respect and kindness aren't just lyrics, but words to live by. That attitude has been instilled into the choir for the past 15 years since its director, Darcy Reese, began teaching students about social justice issues and how they can do their part to solve them.
Reese has taught chorus at LHS for 32 years and for about half of that time has integrated teaching on slavery, civil rights and the Holocaust into her classes. Since 2004, she has incorporated those themes into student musical productions that have caught the attention of gospel music composers and performers across the United States.
Reese was inspired to teach her students about gospel music and to have them perform gospel songs after meeting Horace Clarence Boyer. Boyer, one of the world's leading scholars of African-American gospel, held a seminar on gospel music during a 2003 choral symposium Reese attended. For several years after that, Boyer traveled to Thief River Falls to work with Reese and her choir on musical scores he gave her.
"I learned so much from him," Reese said. "He taught me how to scoop, how to skip, how to use your hands, just what the black sound is."
"He recorded us and he took it to a black choral music workshop in Florida and they said, 'Wow, where are these kids from? That's a great black sound.' He giggled and said, 'They're mostly Norwegians and Swedes from northwest Minnesota.' "
Boyer died in 2009, but Reese continued to work with other African-American gospel artists and have her choir perform the music.
One of the reasons that Reese's choir sounds authentically gospel is because she teaches her students the history behind the music, she said.
"In order to sing civil rights songs or spirituals, you have to understand the history," she said. "I dig into the history of it. I think that's what sets our choir apart."
The LHS choir together read books such as "The New Jim Crow," "Black Like Me" and Toni Morrison's "Remember."
Over the years, besides their large production at the end of the school year, the LHS Gospel Choir also has performed at venues across the United States including Minneapolis, San Francisco and New York City. The gospel choir also has released two CDs of their music, including a recent one called "Audacity of Hope."
This year, the choir also teamed up to perform with Patrick Henry High School, an inner-city high school in north Minneapolis. Lincoln High School Gospel Choir members traveled three times to Minneapolis to sing with the students and get to know them.
Students in both schools initially were nervous about meeting one another, but by the end of the first weekend, they were exchanging social media addresses, Reese said.
At 7 p.m. on May 12-13, the LHS Gospel Choir and the Patrick Henry High School Choir will together perform a musical called "Breaking Barriers: Building a Foundation of Humanity." The dialogue of the nearly two-hour production-which will be held at Lincoln High in Thief River Falls-was written by students.
"It has the gospel music woven through it," Reese said. "We sing and we rehearse and we put in their music. They put their souls out there for people to see.
"I want young people to start making a difference," Reese said. "This younger generation of kids is so important. Diversity should be celebrated. ... I have the awesome opportunity to talk about some of these issues.
Lincoln High School junior Avery Highness and senior Elise Kalsness are glad they and other choir members can take advantage of that opportunity.
"I'm in choir because of the message we share," Kalsness said.
"We all join because we like singing. We stay because there's a message," Highness said.
"We're not going to find it in an average high school. We talk a lot about black history. We talk about women's history, something we don't learn in history class," she said.
Meanwhile, visiting with members of the Patrick Henry High School Choir during the trips this year to Minneapolis gave the rural Minnesota high school students a glimpse of life as students of color who live in a large city.
"That was amazing," Highness said. "Me and Elise got to sit down with two Patrick Henry students; they told us stories we couldn't imagine. The students, themselves, are amazing. I have a lot of people on my phone I talk to."
The shows performed by the gospel choir teach her and others about how people should treat each other, Highness said.
"It's not just a concert. It's a show with a deep, underlying message. We change people."