Social Justice Choir puts GR's culture of giving to work

Yearning to put Grand Rapids’ “culture of giving” to work advancing social justice, Claire Minnis established Social Justice Choir, a community group focused on social justice issues.
Claire Minnis knows a thing or two about feeling silenced. When she was just eight years old, her parents divorced, and her mother came out as gay. A year later, her dad did the same.

Minnis recalls the fear.

“There was a lot of time when I was afraid and ashamed,” Minnis says. Growing up in Farmington, Missouri, a small town outside St. Louis, she says she worried that her parents would lose their jobs if their sexuality were discovered.

The fear subsided as she grew older, but the experience was transformational.

“Times were changing,” Minnis recalls. “My whole family decided to come out, and we’re in a much healthier place now. I wanted to do that for other people.”

“I wanted to get more involved in creating community connections,” she says. “And I thought we could do that through music.”

All choir members have sheet music to reference while singing.

An opportunity to do that came soon after graduating in 2012 from the music education program in Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, when Minnis picked up work directing an adult choir in the community. When funding for the program dried up, Minnis says with a laugh, “we sort of went rogue.”

Led by Minnis, the choir decided to press on, producing its own concert to benefit refugees resettling in the St. Louis community. They called themselves the St. Louis Community Chamber Singers, and for Minnis, a lifelong passion for advocacy through music was born.

Choir members rehearse away from the sanctuary.

While teaching music education for the public schools in St. Louis county, Minnis continued her work in social justice, also directing the St. Louis Women’s Chorus, a community choir with a specific mission to advocate for LGBT and women’s issues. When her fiancé, Jared Alexander, took a job with Grand Valley State University in 2017, Minnis sought out opportunities in West Michigan.

“I was ready to make the change away from teaching,” Minnis says. Three blocks from her new home in Eastown, she found the perfect opportunity. Trinity United Methodist Church was looking to hire a choral director.

“They’re a reconciling church, which means they’re forward-thinking,” says Minnis. “They wanted to put social justice at the forefront of what they did.”

Minnis joins many others for rehearsal with the social justice choir.

Minnis applied, was offered the position, and started work in June. In addition to her work directing the Trinity choir, she sought out opportunities for social justice work in the community, meeting with the director of the Grand Rapids Women’s Chorus and the president of the West Michigan Gay Men’s Chorus.

Minnis walked away from those meetings impressed, yearning to put Grand Rapids’ “culture of giving” to work advancing social justice. The time was right, she said, and over the summer, working with Trinity, Minnis established Social Justice Choir—a community group focused on social justice issues.

According to Minnis, Social Justice Choir is all about inclusivity—no auditions, no participation fees, and free concerts.
The response has been overwhelming. Roughly 30 people came out for the choir’s first rehearsal on Sept. 11, and about 150 expressed an interest on Facebook.

“We’ve gotten a lot of support within the community,” says Minnis, who notes that the hyper-charged political climate is driving interest.

“Polarization is part of the reason that we’ve gotten so much interest right away,” she says.

For Daniel Lambert, a freelance musician and web developer from Grand Rapids, the current political climate is one of the reasons why he joined the Choir.

“I think we’re in such a climate where it seems like everyone is opening their mouths and closing their ears,” he says. “Perhaps a choir can help change that, because it’s music and not a shouting match. I think it’s important to have not only that outlet, but a different style of sending a positive message.”

The effort transcends political divisions, however, and Minnis is clear that Social Justice Choir is open to all. It’s a philosophy inspired in part by Minnis’ upbringing in small town Missouri. “I came from an area that’s seen as being very conservative,” she says. “I have a lot of friends that identify that way, but growing up with them I always felt that if I was honest about who I was, and I was a genuine person, and we had honest conversations, that we could have hard conversations and still find common ground.”

Elizabeth Hudson, an associate scientist from Allegan, shares that perspective. She joined Social Justice Choir hoping to spark dialogue in the community.

“Music is a universal emotional and physical experience among humankind,” she says. “It has the power to start and fuel the dialogue about these sensitive issues in a non-threatening way.”

Social Justice Choir isn’t shying away from hard conversations, either. In its inaugural season, the Choir will produce three concerts, tackling interfaith issues, food justice, and LGBTQ issues, respectively. The group will perform selections from the Justice Choir Songbook, a compilation of music from different traditions, focused on social justice themes. “Some of the music is brand new, and some of it has been around for thousands of years,” says Minnis. The newer pieces have been donated by the composers, and are free to use with attribution.

It’s an incredible resource with which the Social Justice Choir can grow.

As Social Justice Choir gears up for its first concert on Nov. 19, Minnis has an eye on the future; and the plan is ambitious.

“We want to build our resources this year so that we can really take on some hard issues next year,” says Minnis. “We want to start talking about racial issues next year, and we’re already in the process of figuring out how we talk about gentrification, which is huge in Grand Rapids and especially the Eastown neighborhood. We want to talk about reproductive issues and the accessibility of healthcare.”

“My goal is to create a culture where everybody who cares about people can come together.”

The effort is drawing interest from across the region. Joining Trinity in supporting the Social Justice Choir is Grand Valley State University’s Kaufman Interfaith Institute, which will help educate concertgoers on interfaith issues at the Choir’s first concert. And Minnis is talking with other potential partners.

“I’ve only been here a few months, but I knew this was the road I wanted to take when I got here,” Minnis says. “I thought it was going to be longer and harder. But the Grand Rapids area is ready. The city is ready to make change and take action.”

Photography by Bri Luginbill of Bird + Bird Studio.
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