Voices, music, sound checks, and the joyful hum of mingling children echo throughout Chicago's AFC World Outreach Center on a rainy morning—until a man named Walt Whitman takes the microphone.
"Time for us to come together now in Jesus' name," Whitman says, and nearly 100 kids repeat the line several times. Then, at Whitman's command, they shout in unison, "I have something very special to bring to the world!"
The event is a gathering of two youth gospel choirs—the Soul Children of Chicago, led by Whitman, and the Soul Children of Oslo, led by Ragnhild Hiis Ånestad. The Norwegian contingent visited Chicago in October 2010 for a workshop and concert, and the Chicago choir traveled to Oslo the following May for an event that included an additional 1,700 European children.
Together, the two Soul Children groups represent a growing movement throughout the world. In Norway alone, 80 Soul Children choirs have popped up since Ånestad founded the Oslo chapter in March 2001. Other groups gather throughout Europe, Indonesia, Japan, and Bangladesh. "It's spread so fast," Ånestad says.
It all started in 1981 in Chicago, when Whitman founded the Soul Children at St. John De Salles Catholic School. Steady growth has resulted in eight CDS, concerts around the world, millions of viewers (billions, if you include a televised gig at the 2010 World Cup), and some 1,500 alumni. When Whitman met Ånestad at an event in Stockholm about 12 years ago, he encouraged her to start a similar group in Oslo. She says that Whitman planted the seed, and God gave her the vision.
Though Whitman's resume says he's the founder and director of Soul Children, ...