Two years of undergraduate research unexpectedly came in handy for 2009 University Honors graduate Morgan Cain Grim when she introduced Appalachian culture to Spain, and eventually brought Spanish gospel back to its African-American roots.
Before Cain Grim studied abroad in Europe, she may not have imagined that her local Appalachian-focused research would prompt a multicultural interaction.Through various circumstances, however, these occurrences culminated in a Spanish gospel choir’s journey to the United States to perform up and down the East Coast.
This series of events started with Cain Grim’s undergraduate research project on Wake Forest, Va., a small, historically black community in northwest Montgomery County. Cain Grim, a religion and culture major, spent two years interviewing and transcribing community members’ oral histories, which she published in a 350-page manuscript entitled Wake Forest: Voices That Tell of a Faith Community in May 2008. Funded by an Undergraduate Diversity Research Grant, a collaborative effort between the Office of Equity and Inclusion and the Center for Academic Enrichment and Excellence, the publication preserves the community’s rich cultural heritage through their stories, prayers, and songs.
“Cain Grim’s oral history audio recordings comprise one of the larger oral history collections of an African-American community in southern Appalachia,” said Anita Puckett, an associate professor in the Department of Religion and Culture and director of the Appalachian Studies Program.
After completing that project, Cain Grim was planning a study abroad opportunity in Europe during the summer of 2008. Awarded travel grants from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences’ Undergraduate Research Institute and the University Honors Program, Cain Grim visited Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland. During her first day in Spain, Cain Grim stumbled across a bizarre opportunity when she met Barcelona Institute of Gospel leader Oscar Alberdi at a host family’s dinner gathering. Eager to learn about the places where gospel music was born, Alberdi was enthralled as Cain Grim discussed Wake Forest’s religious history and culture.
“He wanted me to share the true character of an African-American community,” said Cain Grim, “and how song, prayer, and unity were vital to keep the community strong.”
At the end of her stay in Barcelona, which included three lectures to the 300-member institute, Cain Grim learned that Alberdi wanted to bring the 20 founding members of the choir to the United States to visit Wake Forest and the home of slave-turned-abolitionist Harriet Tubman, an inspirational woman whose life and actions touched the singers’ lives. Eager to help him fulfill his wish, Cain Grim coordinated a trip in July 2009 for the touring group.
The group’s journey began at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm, where the settlers of Wake Forest were once slaves, and concluded two weeks later in Floyd, Va. During their visit, the group performed 10 times at various venues in Virginia and New York, including FloydFest 8 and Harriet Tubman’s home in Auburn, N.Y. During their visit, the group heard firsthand accounts from African Americans of gospel’s ability to offer hope in desperate times.
Taking on the duties of road manager, Cain Grim accompanied the Spanish choir on their tour. Connecting with the singers as friends and travel companions, Cain Grim said she found the trip rewarding and felt as if the gospel group lifted her up each time she saw them perform.
“Our two week journey together was the most amazing adventure of my life thus far,” said Cain Grim.“Each day was not only entertaining, enlightening, and gratifying, but their pilgrimage created the most culturally and spiritually intense experience I think I will ever encounter.”
Cain Grim also may have started something that could continue indefinitely. The Barcelona group invited a choir from Auburn, N.Y., to sing at a festival in Spain.
Cain Grim received her degree from Virginia Tech in three years. In addition to her research, study abroad, and coordination of the multicultural visit, she also received the $1,000 first prize in the Steger Award for undergraduate poetry in Spring 2009. In her poem, “Topless,” Cain Grim taps her Appalachian studies again as she compares mountain top mining to breast cancer. (Listen to Cain Grim’s “Topless.” ) Since graduation, Cain Grim has worked on starting a group for Young Life — a non-denominational Christian ministry for teens — in her hometown of Floyd, Va.
Written by Lindsey Love, of Stafford, Va., a 2009 graduate who received a degree in communication from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.
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