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Choir director advocates equity, unity and justice in her music and work

By Virginia de Leon

Gospel music embodies Sharon Cowan’s life and faith.

Sharon Cowan

Through song, the director of the Spokane Community Gospel Mass Choir expresses her love for God. Gospel music also helps her share the message of God’s love with others.

“I depend on the Lord for everything,” said Sharon, “Gospel music is sacred to me.  I breathe it. I live it.”

From the time she sang her first hymn in church as a little girl, she has used her musical gift to reach out and bring people together.

As a choir director and also as the equity and community outreach services director for the Community Colleges of Spokane (CCS), Sharon has made it her life mission to “promote unity and social justice in our community and to bring an awareness of how to build an inclusive environment for all people.”

While her work at CCS makes a difference in the lives of students, faculty, staff and the community, most people in Spokane recognize her for the lasting impact she has made on those who have sung with her and have heard the richness and power of her voice.

After moving to Spokane in 1989, Sharon joined Calvary Baptist Church and served for many years as the music director.

Because of her experience conducting choirs and working as a liaison among various groups, she was asked to direct the choir for the city-wide Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration.

About 10 years ago, Sharon also brought together singers and musicians from throughout Washington state to establish the Spokane Community Gospel Mass Choir, which continues to perform at events such as Whitworth University’s annual Gospel Explosion, African American graduation ceremonies and Unity in the Community.

In 2007, Spokane Falls Community College’s dean of instruction asked her to teach a class on Gospel music. This led to the creation of the Spokane Falls Gospel Choir, a class that drew 75 students from various faiths, cultural and ethnic backgrounds last fall and spring. It will be offered again next spring.

Students have ranged in age from 18 to almost 80 years old.

There were no auditions. Sharon’s only requirement was that they had to sing.

“If you have a willing heart, you can sing,” she said. “Gospel music is expressive. It’s energetic. It’s sacred.  I can teach anybody to sing and carry a tune.”

For its debut concert, the choir sang spirituals from the Deep South’s era of slavery to Gospel music sung in churches today.

This repertoire of music gave people hope despite hardships and prejudice they endured as slaves, Sharon explained.

Some of the songs also were used to secretly communicate escape plans so she has had members of the class portray people at work in the fields. Dressed in clothing representative of the Civil War period, some students sang solos.

During class rehearsals, Sharon established a bond with her students teaching them not only about music but also about the history of the civil rights movement and people’s experiences of prejudice.

People shared their perspectives. They discussed their lives and relationships. They fostered friendships.

“When we sing the songs of faith, hope and trust, these are songs of healing,” she said. “We feel God’s power. It brings our community together.”

Sharon’s love of God and her passion for music began during her childhood in Cockrum, Miss.

As a little girl, she would accompany her grandmother into the fields and help her with chores around the house. 

Willie Leola Phillips, who lived to be 95, constantly filled their modest, tin-roof house with the mesmerizing sound of her voice, Sharon recalled.

Her grandmother sang hymns and spirituals while churning cream into butter, canning peaches and plums, baking corn bread for every meal and toiling in the cotton fields.

“She persevered.  She sang away all her worries and troubles,” said Sharon, the granddaughter of sharecroppers. “I didn’t know the grief she experienced because I never saw anyone as happy as my grandmother. I didn’t even know we were poor.

“I thank God for her. She imparted life into me through her singing. She was a beautiful woman.”

Her favorite memories of her grandmother include the ones from church. Willie Leola “would lift her hands and heart to God as she bellowed songs of love and joy while singing in the church choir,” Sharon recalled. “Back then, we didn’t have a lot of music equipment, but we knew how to tap our feet and leap for joy.”

She followed in her grandmother’s footsteps.

By 12, Sharon was singing and directing the choir at Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn.  Before she was 20, she was conducting The Bible Days Revival City Choir.

After spending about seven years in Anchorage, where she served as the director of the city-wide Martin Luther King Jr. celebration and the music director of New Hope Baptist Church, Sharon moved to Spokane in 1989.

A graduate of Spokane Falls Community College and Whitworth University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in organizational management, Sharon sees herself as a builder of cross-cultural relationships.

One of her goals, she said, is “to educate, enlighten and empower people to speak up” whenever they encounter prejudice, racism and cultural insensitivity.

Her work in equity and diversity has been recognized numerous times throughout the community. Earlier this year, Sharon was nominated for outstanding staff/administrator and faculty member at the Women’s Leadership Conference of the Inland Northwest. She also was nominated in the adult category for the Chase Youth Award as an Asset Builder. Last year, she was honored by her colleagues with the Deccio Excellence in Equity Award.

As equity council chair for Community Colleges of Spokane, Sharon collaborates with academic and student services units across the multi-campus system.

She also facilitates CCS’s legislative steering committee and serves as a liaison to business, education, civic and religious organizations in the community.

“I am called to encourage, inspire and bring life to the dry places of other people’s lives,” said Sharon, a mother, grandmother and member of Victory Faith Fellowship in Spokane Valley. “I am a servant. When people need something, I am there for them.”

For information, call 434-5108.