St. Barnabas Lutheran Church Spreads Joy through the Arts

Driving on Old Rockford Road in Plymouth, St. Barnabas might look like a standard church, with an attractive building and grounds.

St. Barnabas has all the music one might expect a church to have—choirs, bells and an organ. But St. Barnabas,
a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and founded in 1987, includes something most places of worship don’t have—an arts center.

“We have fallen into the place where everything is music.”  This quote from the poet Rumi (1207-1273) is on each email that Jeff Whitmill, director of St. Barnabas Center for the Arts (SBCA), sends out. It’s a message that reflects St. Barnabas Lutheran Church’s commitment to the arts and Whitmill’s passion for and dedication to bringing the arts to life.

A few years after the church was founded, St. Barnabas asked its members what mattered to them most. It was clear that supporting the arts and local artists was a priority. Part of the church’s mission is “supporting the arts through education, nurturing and sharing of creative works.” To bring this value from a thought to a reality, the church started the center for the arts in 2006. The center offers private lessons which are open to everyone in the wider community.  About 130 students are enrolled. For kids age 5 and under, the center hosts Family Music Center’s Music Together program.

In addition to the arts center, one of the most popular programs at the church is Jazz@StBarney’s, where professional jazz artists perform about every three weeks in 60 to 75 minute concerts.  Whitmill says, “The best jazz players come here to play—people can experience the music without having to travel downtown.” Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for Twin City Jazz Society members and $5 for students (SBCA students admitted free.) There’s free coffee, lemonade and snacks. Vocalists Connie Evingson and Maud Hixson, and the duo Laura Caviani and David Milne are a few of the artists who are part of the 2018-2019 season. “Our Jazz@StBarney’s program brings the greats here—musicians who perform on Broadway, some who write film scores and who have taught at New York’s Lincoln Center,” says Whitmill.

Music is a central part of worship at St. Barnabas. Congregants can participate in the handbell choir, the children’s choir, the senior choir (open to congregants high school age and up), St. Barnabas Orchestra and St. Barnabas Brass. One of Whitmill’s many roles is conductor of the brass group. Most of the music is arranged or composed by Whitmill so that it can fit the varying levels of experience of the ensemble’s members, which range from beginners to advanced.

 The orchestra is another opportunity for musicians at all levels, from beginners to professionals, to make music together. Church members and non-members are welcome to join the orchestra.  “One of the best things about the orchestra is that it’s multigenerational. We have kids who are just starting to learn an instrument as part of the orchestra. We find something they can play, even if it’s a few notes, and they feel great being part of it,” Whitmill says.   

Whitmill encourages arts center students to join, along with their parents and siblings.  There are no auditions and the orchestra doesn’t play during worship—it’s strictly for fun. Whitmill says the orchestra is a great way for former students to keep up with their instruments.

As with the brass group, Whitmill arranges with simpler parts for brand-new students and more demanding parts for those who are experienced. “It’s always a lot of fun and greatly appreciated by the church and our visitors,” says Whitmill.

St. Barnabas congregant and church council member Clint Faust has been singing with SBCA’s choir for nine years.  “Jeff is the energy and the inspiration behind the arts at St. Barnabas,” says Faust. Faust admires Whitmill’s ability to write and arrange music so that every, no matter their level of skill or experience as a musician, can participate.

“Jeff gives us some very challenging pieces sometimes that are difficult to learn,” says Faust, “but he has great confidence in us. We sing a wide range of pieces, in Latin, Russian and other languages.”

Faust appreciates that the church’s music programming allows different generations to play together, and that welcoming musicians at different levels allows many people to connect with music—Faust’s wife, Audrey, played clarinet through high school, but hadn’t played since. One Valentine’s Day, Faust’s gift to Audrey was a clarinet.  Audrey joined the orchestra and is now enjoying playing music again.

“Jeff is an amazing talent,” says Faust, “in composing, arranging, and in everything he does. “He writes parts so even beginners can be part of it. He’ll write a part with all whole notes if that’s what’s needed. He makes everyone feel included and welcomed. He’s an awesome leader and a great guy.”

Faust gives credit to Whitmill’s wife, Glenna, for keeping the arts programming organized.  “Glenna does everything from printing the tags that identify the artwork in the gallery to handing out and collecting the choir’s sheet music,” says Faust.

 Faust also notes that Pastor Wayne Peterson, the church’s senior pastor, is a strong supporter of the church’s arts programming and advocates for the resources necessary for the arts to thrive at St. Barnabas.

Rich Frevert, who has been teaching trumpet at SBCA for about five year enjoys working with kids, and has students from beginners to high school students.  He appreciates how St. Barnabas provides music students with an opportunity to do recitals twice a year. “Recitals give kids a lot of confidence,” says Frevert. “It’s great that the church gives kids that chance to perform in front of people and hear the other students.”  

Frevert also has high praise for Whitmill.  “He’s a great person to work with—in the way he runs the center, and he’s a great musician.”  Frevert also volunteers with the brass band.

 St. Barnabas also supports visual and literary arts. The Gardenview Gallery hosts exhibitions by local and regional artists. The exhibitions are free of charge to the artists, and art can be purchased directly from the artists. The gallery, on the main floor of the church, has shown a variety of media—watercolors,  paintings, photographs, pastels and more.

Through welcoming and supporting artists along with musicians at every level, it’s clear that  St. Barnabas lives its mission of supporting the arts.