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Interfaith Choir Camp creates harmony and community

Episcopalian and Catholic bishops join to emphasize unity, collaboration among youth

Published: August 25, 2023   
Courtesy Rev. Chuck Chapman
Campers at the annual Interfaith Choir Camp at Subiaco Abbey practice the handbells as part of a rehearsal for the camp’s culmination, the evensong performance.

Subiaco Abbey hosted the 47th annual Arkansas Interfaith Conference, welcoming students of all religious backgrounds to come together in harmony. 

Founded by Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in 1976, the Arkansas Interfaith Conference of Churches and Synagogues has hosted the annual choir camp since 1987. 

The Interfaith Choir Camp, held from July 23-29, is open to students who have finished third grade through rising 12th graders. The camp offers an intensive music program with classes on choral singing, handbells, liturgy, Broadway song and dance, history, poetry and art. 

As the camp grew over the years, many attendees, such as Beau Baldwin, would use their experiences to continue in the arts while growing their faith. 

Baldwin, director of music and organist at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, learned about the camp when its founder, Charlie Rigsby, began giving the teenage Baldwin organ lessons. Rigsby was the organist and choirmaster at St. Luke Episcopal Church in Fayetteville.

“He told me that I should go to their choir camp, and that I wouldn’t have to pay for organ lessons in exchange,” Baldwin said. “That started my long-term relationship working alongside the Episcopal Church.”

Baldwin, who attended the camp for two years in high school, has been a part of the camp staff for more than 20 years.

“I do a fair amount of organization and work in the background getting music ready to go,” Baldwin said. “Every year we focus on a different theme, and all of the choral anthems and pieces change based on the theme.”

The choir camp’s annual themes usually focus on topics like peace, harmony and unity. The culmination of every choir camp is the evensong, a church service traditionally held near sunset where musical arrangements are performed. 

Abbot Elijah Owens, OSB, of Subiaco Abbey told Arkansas Catholic about the significance of interfaith unity in the evensong.

“This beautifully echoes the liturgy of the Anglican and Catholic traditions which participate with numerous traditions in the yearly prayer service at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome,” Abbot Owens wrote.

This year’s evensong, held July 27 during the camp week, was particularly meaningful because of changes in camp personnel and Episcopalian Bishop Larry Benfield retiring Jan. 6.

During the evensong service, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor and Bishop Benfield delivered parts of the homily, as well as Abbot Owens. 

“The dominating mood was of happiness at being together, and the feeling that, in this time when division seems to be the dominant mood in society, we were bearing witness to our Lord's prayer ‘that they all might be one,’” said Rev. Chuck Chapman of St. James Episcopal Church in Magnolia, who has helped with events and performances at the camp since 1988.

Chapman said that over the years, many children have called the community at the choir camp home. 

“In the time I’ve been there, I’ve seen multiple generations at choir camp,” Chapman said

One multi-generational choir camp family is the Horton family. While growing up, Sarah Horton was a member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock, where she met Rigsby and reluctantly attended the camp in 1987. 

Now Horton has four children of her own, and they all go to the Interfaith Choir Camp every year. John David Horton, Horton’s eldest son, who currently attends Catholic High School in Little Rock, said the camp was something he loves attending.  

“It’s probably my favorite week of the summer. It’s like a family, because everyone comes back year after year,” he said. 

For Sarah Horton, the Interfaith Choir Camp reaffirms working together through Christ. 

“I graduated from Mount St. Mary, and my brother graduated from Catholic High. My children were at St. Edward School when it closed,” she said. “It has always been that everyone is welcome (at the camp), which I appreciate and I think is super important … It’s more important for us to be united rather than divided. We can’t fix the world by being divided.” 

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