July 28, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship was recognized for its long relationship with the Hampton Institute.

In early June, John Witvliet and Charsie Sawyer stood onstage before a throng of African-American and white church leaders to accept an award for excellence in church music. On Thursday, June 9, 2010, Witvliet, the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW), and Sawyer, a Calvin professor of music, accepted the Charles H. Flax Award of Excellence in Church Music on behalf of the CICW at the closing concert of the Hampton University Ministers' Conference and Choir Directors-Organists Guild Workshop

"It’s a big event, and we were happily surprised by it,” said Witvliet, who learned of the honor via e-mail a week before he and Sawyer accepted the award. “It was a very wonderful e-mail to receive.”

The Flax award, named for a former director of church music at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), annually recognizes an institution for its work in improving church music and church music programs. The award also honors that institution’s musicians for their achievements in composition and performance of church music.

Supporting the academy

The CICW was recognized in particular because of its support for the Hampton Church Music Academy, support that has included hosting academy members at the annual Calvin Symposium on Worship. “The institute provided stupendous support for the church music academy,” said Dr. James Abbington, the co-director (through this year) of music for the Hampton workshop.

The CICW has also awarded several grants to congregations represented at Hampton, hosted Hampton presenters at various events over the past decade and sponsored an academic summer seminar on worship in the African-American tradition.

The Hampton Ministers' Conference and Choir Directors/Organists Guild is one of the largest groups of African-American church leaders in the country, Witvliet said: “For five generations, thousands of church leaders in African-American churches have journeyed to Hampton each June for a time of learning, inspiration and renewal.”

Sawyer, who has formerly taught at the conference and who attended this year as a representative of the CICW, agreed: “I refer to the Hampton Ministers' and Choir Directors/Organists Guild Workshop as the best-kept secret in ministry … It's a great body of believers gathered together to learn, to be renewed and encouraged in their spiritual journey.” The ministers’ conference, founded in 1914, has a long tradition of achievement in African-American music, and the Flax honor is a significant one for the CICW.

“We have learned a tremendous amount from our Hampton connections, particularly about the value of intergenerational learning, about not merely embracing historic and contemporary expressions, but making sure that they deeply enrich each other,” Witvliet said.

A high honor

"That award has actually only been presented to two institutions,” said Abbington of the Flax honor, which was created during his tenure. He is thrilled that Calvin is one of them. An associate professor of church music at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Abbington has had a long relationship with Calvin—one that includes speaking at the 2008 January Series and participating in workshops and conferences for the music department and the CICW.

"It was exciting,” he said of the Flax award presentation, “and it was just so appropriate.”

Witvliet also enjoyed the event, particularly the closing concert, at which he and Sawyer were given the plaque now displayed in the CICW offices: “The place is filled with energy and three hours of energetic music—a lot of it spirituals, black gospel … ,” he said. "With the wonderful hospitality, I felt right at home in that assembly.”

Sawyer too enjoyed the occasion, partly for what it symbolized: "There is nothing like being in an assembly of over 8,000 worshippers who are eager, sincere, and exuberant honoring our creator … .  Visually, I believe it was a message of unity, whether (we’re) black or white, working to build God's community."

John Witvliet

Charsie Sawyer

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