Popular Soul Church revival draws hundreds at reunion
September 9, 2009
By Darla Martin Tucker
RIVERSIDE, Calif. – ( www.lasierra.edu ) Perhaps Facebook is to blame. Last spring a few La Sierra University alumni chatted away through the behemoth social networking site about organizing a small reunion at a restaurant or church event. They wanted to refresh friendships and visit with a La Sierra pal who’d become ill.
But before their plans could come to fruition, their La Sierra alumnus and friend passed away. “After the funeral services, when a few of the friends did see each other, it was clear that we all needed to take the opportunity to reunite, and with continued gratitude for our friend, who had been so excited about seeing classmates, planning began,” said Tanya Fulton Lampkin, a 1982 and 1983 La Sierra graduate who lives with her family in Hercules, Calif. near the Napa Valley.
As it often goes with the cyberspace domino effect of Facebook, the alumni group began connecting and linking with ever greater numbers of far-flung La Sierra friends. The small gathering mushroomed into a weekend of activities with hundreds planning to converge on La Sierra’s campus, a Riverside church and Corona hotel. The resulting Black Student Association Alumni Reunion took place Aug. 28-29, a series of social and religious activities that included a revival of La Sierra’s former, highly popular Soul Church.
La Sierra classmates from 1977 through 1987 hosted the weekend. Organizers formed a meet-and-greet program, church service, potluck lunch, Soul Church and Saturday night social. The events respectively took place at the SpringHills Suites Marriott in Corona, La Sierra and nearby Mt. Rubidoux Seventh-day Adventist Church.
“It turned into something way bigger than anything we’d thought of,” Lampkin said. She holds a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and a master’s degree in educational psychology. She serves as western regional director of human resources for Sava Senior Care based in Atlanta. Lampkin and a few other alumni began reunion discussions on Facebook in March.
The small group eventually expanded into two planning committees who employed e-mail and social networking to promote a reunion weekend and coordinate activities. The Alumni Reunion Committee ultimately consisted of the following individuals: Lampkin, R. Denise Darrett-Johnson, Sherry Flagg-Jenkins, James Jones, Barron Peeler, Tonya Pyburn-Elleston, Janet White Hampton, Alan Woodson and Sibyl Beaulieu, a current assistant professor of social work at La Sierra. Darrett-Johnson served as the overall event chair. Lampkin reserved a 10-room block at the SpringHills Suites to accommodate traveling alumni, but had to add another 10 rooms as more and more people signed up. Many alumni planned to fly in from other states.
Soul Church, a praise-filled campus service attended by scores of students between 1969 and the mid 1990s, attracted more than 500 alumni and guests on Saturday afternoon and evening, Aug. 29. The growth of the crowd required moving the event from its former home at the university’s Hole Memorial Auditorium to the La Sierra University Church where the event got underway a little after 6 p.m.
The three-hour service reverberated with a rousing gospel sing-along, performances by members of the university’s nationally acclaimed former gospel choir, Another Peace, and other musicians and groups who herald from La Sierra’s past.
“I used to attend Soul Church when I was here and I have often wondered if it still existed,” said Kathy Torres-Kenion seated in a pew just before the start of Soul Church. “I heard about it through Facebook,” she said. Torres-Kenion attended La Sierra Academy and then La Sierra’s pre-nursing program in 1979 before enrolling at Loma Linda University. She remembers the Soul Church services of the past as “very soulful, very musical. It had worship in it. It was alive and inspirational.”
Alumni Colleen Pierre-Louis, Veronica Abell and Abell’s cousin, Linda Canson Mackey sang “Come Unto Jesus” for the Soul Church reunion. Pierre-Louis and Abell performed as students in La Sierra’s university singers.
“Basically Soul Church is the thing that brought me to La Sierra in the first place,” Pierre-Louis said. “I was so moved and blessed. It was a major drawing card. …It was a real opportunity for us to have a cultural expression we felt we weren’t getting an opportunity to have in a traditional church setting,” she said. At La Sierra she earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science in 1976 and a master’s in counselor education in 1980. She is a school psychologist for the Ontario-Montclair School District.
Abell graduated in 1977 with a degree in criminal justice. She is a tribal services coordinator for the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. She and Canson Mackey sang with the campus group, the “Distinctive Friends of Jesus,” while still in high school, she said. Tony Williams, the group’s director, started Soul Church on Sabbath afternoons, Abell said. “Soul Church means so much,” she said. “Even before we came to college here we were looking forward to it.”
James Kyle, class of ’73, provided a historical synopsis of Soul Church during the reunion service. “Soul Church is actually 40 years old,” he said. The event launched in 1969 as the civil rights movement was beginning to wind down, he said. “It was not about a show, it was not about entertainment, it was about spiritual survival,” he said. Soul Church began in Angwin Hall as a song service then migrated to Sierra Towers before finally landing at Hole Memorial Auditorium.
Well-known minister and La Sierra graduate Dr. Emil D. Peeler gave an inspirational message during the Soul Church reunion about the need for students of Christian education to remain true to its ideals, its principles and to God, and to share God’s blessings by blessing those in need.
Peeler is director of church growth and discipleship for the Southeastern California Conference and serves as an adjunct professor at the Loma Linda University School of Religion. He is a former president of the Black Student Association at La Sierra and graduated in 1983 with a Bachelor’s of Arts in ministerial studies. Peeler regularly attended and participated in Soul Church.
“It was an awesome experience. It was a needed venue of fellowship and inspiration that, as a young African-American, gave me a forum where I felt welcomed and affirmed,” Peeler said.
According to Lampkin, that sense of affirmation through the cultural and spiritual celebration of Soul Church drew many African-American students to La Sierra who might otherwise have chosen Oakwood University, an historically Black Seventh-day Adventist institution in Huntsville, Ala. It was previously known as Oakwood College.
“… as young, Black (African-American) kids trying to decide where to go to college, those of us from California, as far as the Bay Area, knew about Soul Church and wanted to be a part of it,” Lampkin said. “We realized that we did not have to go to all the way to Alabama to attend Oakwood in order to have a culturally relevant social, community and worship experience in Adventist education. Soul Church was our little Oakwood in California, at least in terms of the worship experience, music and sharing our talents”
Fritz Guy, a philosophical theology professor and La Sierra’s first president after its 1990 separation from Loma Linda University, praised the weekend’s organizers and the Soul Church service which he attended. “I thought the reunion experience was a huge success, because it brought back to the campus several hundred alumni who do not usually attend the annual alumni homecoming. It seemed to me that before, during and after the meeting there was much valuable reconnecting of old friends.”
“I think the overall impact [of Soul Church] was very positive,” Guy continued. “I hope for two developments: that such an occasion will become an annual event, and that the alumni who attended can be persuaded to come to the annual homecoming,” he said.
Reunion organizers collected an offering that will pay for a memorial brick and plaque inscribed with the following message: “ The Classes of 1977-1987 celebrate their classmates In Memoriam during the BSA Reunion weekend, August 28-30, 2009.” The plaque and brick, honoring deceased classmates, will be placed at the Hamilton Memorial on the university campus.
The Soul Church revival on Aug. 29 was the third such re-creation of the event in past years, Lampkin said. While many people have talked about bringing Soul Church back to campus on a more regular basis, the decision of whether or not to incorporate the event should rest with the 2009-’10 Black Student Association, Lampkin said. “My thought is it’s really important to let the [Black Student Association] do whatever they’re going to do. …Hopefully we’ve ignited and re-energized the possibility [of continuing Soul Church],” she said.
PR Contact: Larry Becker
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La Sierra University