On one side you have Grammy nominated musician Sheila E., and her legendary father, Pete Escovedo.
On the other, you have the young students of Willard Intermediate School in Santa Ana, Calif.
Located in a neighborhood battling the usual urban ills of poverty and gang violence, Willard Intermediate doesn’t really offer students activities like music education because they just don’t have the funds for it.
Yet these students came together with these legendary musicians last week to put on a concert.
It’s part of the Hope Alive! program founded by New Hope Presbyterian Church here. Hope Alive! raised $78,000 in its first four years, primarily through ticket sales to the annual concert. This year's concert has raised more than $20,000 so far, including proceeds from an auction in which Sheila E. sold her concert shoes and Pete Escovedo sold one of his cowbells.
The money has subsidized music instructors for the school, helped purchase instruments, established the Hope Alive! Youth Orchestra and Chorale, and of course given these students the opportunity to perform alongside world famous musicians.
“They are beyond excited and they have been working since July on their music,” says the Rev. Chineta Goodjoin, pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church. “I always say it’s not so much that we get to play with Sheila E. but Sheila E. gets to play with them.”
“Shelia E. and her family were amazing,” she says. “They were so moved. They were supposed to come out and play in the second half of the show. They came out in the first half and said we want to start playing now. It was a great night of lots of praise.”
New Hope started the program as a community outreach when school budget cuts forced classes like music out of the curriculum. The church understood the importance of music, not just as entertainment but as a tool for development.
“Research indicates that students who participate in music arts programs have higher test scores and improved analytical thinking skills,” notes one recent flyer put out by the church in support of the concert.
They also help purchase instruments because many of the families in the neighborhood cannot afford them.
“One thing about the people that we ask to come, that we seek out, they are also invested and they understand why we are doing what we do,” says Goodjoin. Sheila E. performed with the kids last year and was so impressed with the program that she came back to help out again.
Goodjoin says the community, which at first seemed to question the motives of the church, has also come to embrace the program and as a result she says it meant more support from the school district and other groups to make the show a success.
“We have no other agenda but to use the gifts instilled in our church to support the community,” she notes. “I believe it will continue to get stronger and stronger as relationships of trust are further enhanced and built.”
While it’s a lot of work, Goodjoin says that after five years they have Hope Alive! pretty much down to a science and she’s beginning to see other opportunities to serve the community thanks to the relationships they’ve built.
“I see what started out as an effort to support a school that had lost its music programming has developed springboards of opportunity and we are standing on the springboard now,” she says. “We have this reality that’s before us of gang warfare and people divided by race and it’s prevalent where we live and yet at this concert we get to see black and brown kids making music together, making peace together, coming together with their harmonies.”
The Santa Ana school district is 99% Latino but New Hope Church has African American kids as well. As they learned songs together for the concert, Goodjoin says the Latino musicians learned gospel music, the African American players learned salsa, and they all learned R&B together.
“I see it as what partnership in community is supposed to be about: learning to appreciate each other and defying the myths that cultures stay isolated and separated. Not at Hope Alive!” she says. “You see a good mix of all kinds of people seeking to support and make a difference.”
“God is giving us even greater opportunities we just have to keep seeking his vision as to what direction are we really going to go in next. I believe it will be the direction of tackling poverty. I believe it will be in the direction of further encouraging cross cultural appreciation.”
Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to Presbyterian News Service. She lives in Statesville, N.C., where she serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.