Pilgrim Covenant Church celebrates 120th anniversary Gospel Singing Competition draws variety of music styles

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Vanessa Willis was the first prize winner.

In January 1902, the Free Swedish Farmers of North Granby Society was formed. That institution transitioned over the years to become Pilgrim Covenant Church of Granby, which celebrates its 120th anniversary this year. The church has seen many changes since its beginnings but kept its New England small-town flavor, exemplified by its charming white-steepled church sitting on the Granby-Southwick town line.

Like many churches, Pilgrim Covenant Church members suffered under the social restrictions imposed by Covid but, like their Swedish founders, they are made of strong stuff. When contemplating how to celebrate their 120th anniversary, they decided to “go big.” On June 11 they staged the Gospel Singing Competition 2022 and opened it to the community for a night of musical celebration of faith and the Holy Spirit.

Pilgrim Covenant Church reached out to towns across Connecticut and Massachusetts to invite musical artists from the Gospel and Christian genres to compete for prizes. They assembled a panel of celebrity judges: Scot Haney of Channel 3 Eyewitness News and Great Day Connecticut fame; gospel music recording artist Reverend Lisa Clayton, who also directs the UConn Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir; and Pastor Jesse Burgess, gospel radio DJ on 90.7FM Springfield and gospel recording artist also known as The Preacherman of the group Preacherman and the Singing Saints.

The Gospel Singing Competition judges, from left: Pastor Jesse Burgess, Reverend Lisa Clayton, and Scot Haney. Submitted photos

The line-up of artists for the competition ranged from the country-rock stylings of The Rattletones band with I’ll Fly Away to the voice and harmonica Christian duet of Withel and Owen Simpson singing I’m Building a Bridge. Faith Smith kicked off the event with her gospel rendition of Days of Elijah, stirring the crowd with her terrific vocal range and control. “It was an incredible gathering of musical talent with a variety of approaches. All well done,” said Greg Sikes of the event. Sikes shared the host spotlight with Greg Johnson, both members of the Pilgrim Covenant Church council.

At the conclusion of the performances, the judges had the challenging task of choosing the winners. The third-place prize was awarded to Peter and Laura Hicks, who performed an original song titled, What is Man? Judge Scot Haney quipped, “A remarkable job of a married couple that can sing together. God bless you!” The second-place prize was awarded to David Gurt’s rendition of the classic Christian hymn Old Rugged Cross accompanied on piano by Samuel Shokov. “Great voice, great piano,” declared judge Jesse Burgess.

Vanessa Willis won the top prize, $1,500 and a trophy, with her original gospel song This Too Shall Pass. “I’m going to agree with Pastor Jesse,” said judge Lisa Clayton. “That took me to church!” Willis will release her first full-length album titled The Worship Room in the fall of 2022. She is also very active in the community of singers and songwriters, launching the Levite Nation to spread life, love and hope through music.

Reverend Lisa Clayton ended the night with a performance of her new gospel release, Destiny. Her energy had the entire audience clapping and singing along. “This place hasn’t rocked in a long time!” exclaimed Johnson at the end of the evening.

Many people worked together to make the Gospel Singing Competition 2022 happen. Church members all pitched in to manage stage, lights, sound, refreshments, advertising, tickets, parking and dozens of tasks to make the event a reality. The event was not intended to be a moneymaker—tickets were only $5 and the donation box went to benefit Ukraine. The event was intended to be a gift to the community, a way to uplift spirits and express gratitude and joy through music.

On its website, Pilgrim Covenant Church says, “Church is more to us than a simple building. It’s a body of individuals devoted wholly to the teaching of Jesus Christ, loving one another like Christ loved us, and sharing our joy through acts of love and compassion to the community and to a hurting world. We invite you to come be part of something bigger than yourself, something with purpose, something with passion.”

This body of passionate individuals accomplished something remarkable for its 120th anniversary, putting action behind their words to share their joy with the community in a big way.