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Montpelier Community Gospel Choir and New Director Verdis LeVar Robinson: A Message of Hope, Resilience, and Bravery

Verdis L. Robinson, incoming director of Montpelier Community Gospel Choir. Photo by Wayne Fawbush.
“Gospel music is not only for African Americans,” asserts the new artistic director of the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir, Verdis LeVar Robinson. 

“It’s a travesty if not shared. Anyone can benefit from the message of this music. We keep the message alive in Vermont during this era of Black Lives Matter. We spread empathy and understanding for that community, how that culture survives inhumane conditions and how the good news can bring joy and hope to all of us,” he said.

Robinson, originally from Rochester, New York, joins the choir as its second artistic director for the 2022–2023 season, making his debut on Dec. 15 at a noontime concert at Christ Church Montpelier. He succeeds John Harrison, who retired earlier this year. 

The group is open to all with no auditions or expectations about spiritual beliefs and musical literacy. Robinson explains that singers learn music in three ways: reading a score, using a word sheet, or learning by ear. Gospel songs are usually learned by ear, accompanied by a band of piano, drums, guitars, and organ. In rehearsal, he sees his role in preparation of the chorus as finding out who is lost. “A lot of members have not been singing during the pandemic, so the transition has taken a while. There is a lot to navigate, but it’s a new day, and we are hitting our stride.” 

The message of gospel music, he says, resonates with all people. “It was centered with Christianity adopted by enslaved people. Initially, religion was used to keep them subjugated, but it ended up giving hope to the oppressed. The message of ‘you are not alone’ is found in many songs, from ‘His Eye in On the Sparrow’ and ‘Precious Lord Take My Hand.’ There is comfort that, without hiding the pain, you will not be left in the shadow of death, that a strong faith can provide a ticket into Heaven.” 

Robinson traces the evolution of gospel music as it moved beyond the African-American church to fuse with the secular traditions. 

“Tommy Dorsey in the 1920s brought in jazz and combined it with hymns,” Robinson said. “Later, rock-and-roll, R-and-B singers like Aretha Franklin, fused with the music initially meant for the church and served to inspire and to encourage folks to take action. Hope is a great motivator in the face of oppression. On a personal level, singing the songs helps people transmit what it feels within and to enter the now in a way that is embodied rather than cerebral.” 

Robinson’s background drew him to gospel, having come from a church background and serving as a Pentacostal choir director, where he learned by ear. Studying classical theory in school helped him learn methods and to read music. He is a candidate for the Unitarian Universalist ministry and served as a ministerial intern at the Montpelier church in 2020–2022, joining the staff as ministerial coordinator of worship arts production and adult lifespan spiritual exploration. 

To hear the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir and Verdis LaVar Robinson’s debut, attend the concert from 12 to 12:45 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 15 at Christ Church Episcopal, 24 State Street. The small choir of about 25 is performing as a benefit for the piano fund at the church. 

For information on the Montpelier Community Gospel Choir, visit montpeliergospel.org.