Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Even the most seasoned performers would likely be challenged by a production schedule that begins on Monday and ends on Friday with a live musical (Aug. 12) involving area youth who are participating in a free choir camp at First Congregational Church
under the direction of its Music Director Lucy Lower.
Titled “Table for Five…Thousand”, the musical tells the story of the Loaves and Fishes miracle that appears in the Bible's New Testament. Lower says FCC has been doing these musicals for 27 years through a partnership with other churches in the community, including First Presbyterian, next door to FCC.
With the exception of 2020 when the pandemic suspended the choir camp, the show has gone on. In 2021 the camp resumed with performers and audience members wearing masks. This year, masks during the camp are not mandated but are recommended. And masks also are recommended but not required this year for audience members.
“Most of the shows that we’ve done are based on Bible stories and I have a whole closetful of T-shirts from the shows we’ve done because we do a T-shirt every year for the kids to wear,” Lower says.
The stories of the Prodigal Son, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, and David and Goliath have all been presented as shows. The youth who perform have less than one week to learn their lines and their songs.
Lucy Lower will lead the choir camp co-sponsored by First Congregational and First Presbyterian churches in downtown Battle Creek.
This year’s camp runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. from Aug. 8-12 and registration is required
. Campers will receive a free snack each day and should bring their own sack lunch for the duration of the camp.
In addition to fine-tuning their performance skills, participants will learn how to bake bread in FCC’s commercial kitchen. That bread will be served to audience members during the 7 p.m. performance of “Table for Five…Thousand” in keeping with the show’s main themes.
Lower says breaks have been built in to the schedule to give participants opportunities to take a deeper dive into the show’s core messages.
“The kids love the shows and come with so much energy,” Lower says. “The kids put in a lot of effort over the week. In the past, we have had several churches represented. Our church and First Presbyterian are the sponsors. They always have someone from their church on staff for the choir camp.”
A small sampling of the T-shirts representing past choir camps.
Although the choir camp wasn’t always free, Lower says generous financial donors and funds available in the sponsoring churches' budgets were enough that camp organizers decided they could offer it, at no cost. It is available to youth ages 8 and up.
The number of youth attending the camp in any given year ranges between 20 and 30 with some coming from cities like Grand Rapids to stay with grandparents in Coldwater or Marshall and some coming from other churches.
Lower and her team don’t have a good sense of how many youth will participate or what their level of talent is until day one of the camp. This, she says, presents challenges and opportunities.
“It’s always a mystery and that’s fine with me because it helps us be spontaneous and creative. Sometimes we have girls playing a traditionally boys’ role and vice versa,” Lower says. “We have kids from out of town staying with grandparents who may not be familiar with all of the kids in the group. Our staff is really good about bringing the kids together to work as a team.”
Lower brings years of experience to her role as director of the choir camp, having spent 30 years as a music teacher with the Battle Creek Public Schools, a job she retired from in 2016. She has served since 1992 on the staff of FCC as its music director, a job she’s held since 1992. She also gives private piano lessons.
“I overlapped the two jobs because music is where it’s at for me,” she says, adding that her husband and their children also are involved with music.
The choir camp satisfies her quest to ensure that youth have an opportunity to be exposed to music in a safe and non-judgmental space.
“I had one young person who said they loved choir camp so much that they went into music professionally,” Lower says. “You never know who’s going to be that unrecognized superstar out there. You’ve got to give kids the opportunity to try new things. There are some who are just waiting to be discovered.”