As Chris Mathews, professor of music and department chair, prepared to end one chapter of his life and leave Jackson after teaching at Union for eight years, he was able to coordinate a partnership several years in the making.
Ever since his long-time friend started a chamber choir at South Africa’s University of Limpopo, he has wanted to collaborate. He met Thabe Matsebatlela, founding director, in 2005 at Clemson University where he taught before coming to Union.
Matsebatlela shared a recording of South African choirs, and Mathews was immediately hooked on the joyful sounds.
“I asked [Matsebatlela] how I could get a copy of the music,” Mathews said. “And inquisitively, he responded, ‘Music? Oh no, we don’t use music. We just sing.’”
The first time the two planned a trip in the fall of 2013, it fell through at the last minute. A recent grant from the University of Limpopo funded the trip.
During their two-week visit to Tennessee as Union’s Choir-in-Residence, they performed for local high schools, participated in classes and took private voice lessons at Union. They also traveled to Nashville to learn from music programs at Belmont University and Lipscomb University.
The Choir-in-Residence program allows each choir to learn from the other, gaining a deeper understanding of the respective music and cultures. While the University of Limpopo does not have a music program, Matsebatlela is working to develop one. His singers come from different areas of study—from accounting to sciences and humanities. Matsebatlela studied biology and is accomplished in cancer research.
“What aggravates me is that he just does this for fun—I have to work at it,” Mathews said with a laugh.
In trying to develop a music program at his own university, Matsebatlela said it is important for his students to see what high-level programs look like at other schools. But this trip was also about exchanging cultural traditions.
Union’s music department hosted a joint concert with the 30-member chamber choir where the two directors took turns leading the group, a highlight being several movements of Missa brevis in C, K. 220, written by a 20-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Germany 240 years ago.
The South African singers took the stage by singing a song of welcome in one of their native tongues, dancing in colorful clothing. They shared lively performances of spiritual selections from their homeland in several languages, including English.
“Actions speak the language that can be understood by anyone,” Matsebatlela said. “We are brothers by choice, not by blood.”
Matsebatlela said his country has 11 official languages, and some members of the choir don’t even know them all, presenting challenges when learning music cross-culturally.
Mathews’ students definitely saw similarities between the groups, but the Limpopo choir has a richer tone and is more physically involved when performing, he said. The South African singers reminded him that while performing and listening to music is great, building communities through the shared experiences that come with making music is what he craves.
“There is a joy in seeing communities come together,” Mathews said. “The power of music unites us, and we’re the same.”
None of Matsebatlela’s students had ever traveled to the United States before, and it is a “different world” than what they know at home. He said Tennessee was a kind, welcoming place.
“It’s shaping how they see Americans,” he said during the visit. “Very different than what they see in the movies.”
Starting this fall, Mathews will be the dean of the college of fine arts at Oklahoma Baptist University. Initially, he wasn’t interested in the position because it would take him away from what he loves most about his job—the students.
But one early morning walk in November outside the Opryland Hotel changed his mind.
“I was standing at the waterfall outside of the Magnolia section of the hotel, and I remember thinking, ‘Okay Lord, is this an opportunity to make an impact in other faculty in ways that I have been able to impact students’ lives?’” he said. “And at that point, I knew what I needed to do.”
Oklahoma Baptist University is hiring six new faculty members next year, and Mathews looks forward to training and mentoring them while integrating faith. Mathews will also work with a choir, but his main goal is “to interact with professors, to find people who are academically gifted and intellectually rigorous and passionate about Christ.”
While Mathews looks forward to what his future holds in Oklahoma, he will miss the people from Union most of all. Mathews said his students and colleagues have no idea how talented, passionate and special they are.
“The students here even intimidate me at times,” he said. “As a group, we love Christ and serve passionately. I have a composer right next door and an orchestra conductor on the other side. I am so blessed. We have laughed, cried and prayed…I’d like Union University to move to Oklahoma.”
Not only is Mathews a professor, he is a Union alumnus from the class of 1995.
The Paducah, Kentucky native said he was one of many high school graduates from Lone Oak First Baptist Church who went on to attend Union. Mathews said Union was his first choice, and he always knew it was the right school for him.
Not only did Union become home to Mathews, it became home to his wife Leslie as well. The two attended church camp together in middle school and Mathews said he could hardly remember a time when Leslie was not part of his life. The high school sweethearts both pursued undergraduate education, and ultimately employment at Union. She is an assistant professor of special education.
Mathews admitted that when he was in school, he was not nearly as mature as the students he teaches.
“I remember quite fondly the many hours we spent together in the D-hall of the PAC before Jennings existed, making up songs, quoting lines from movies, imitating our professors and stealing couches from other parts of the building while stealthily eluding the ever-watchful eye of Safety and Security,” he said. “As serious students of music, we affectionately referred to this as ‘practicing.’”
Mathews ended up ministering at Kentucky churches after he graduated, but he always knew his dream was to teach and make an impact.
After ministering in Kentucky, he and Leslie moved to Missouri where he attended graduate school at Southwest Missouri State University. Later, he returned to Kentucky where he achieved his doctorate of music arts. Then Mathews taught for four years at Clemson University in South Carolina.
“I had been teaching in South Carolina, and then I found out through Dr. Dennis here at Union that there was a position open,” Mathews said. “So I came back, and I have loved every minute of it. Union is just as good or better now than it was when I was a student.”