By Catherine Pastoor (’21, Arts and Life Editor)
When you first walk into Bil Mooney-McCoy’s office, the most remarkable thing about it is his array of photos of chapel bands from the past 6 years, spanning his time here at Gordon. In 2019, the wall is now full and overflowing to the opposite side.
Mooney-McCoy was born in Boston to his parents who met at Park Street Church.
“One of the most interesting parts is that my mom’s white and my dad’s black,” he said, “While that is kind of interesting now, in the fifties it was very interesting, as in not cool. That has shaped a lot of my strength but also my struggle for identity. I grew up in Boston during some of its most difficult days racially. Boston has a reputation of being a very racist city. I would say it’s gotten a little better but now in the past five or six years it’s gone backwards.”
Mooney McCoy’s father was an amateur musician who taught him to play at a young age; he remembers his father teaching him his first dominant seventh chord when he was five years old. “I started to learn music at about the time when I learned to use English,” he said. He describes his childhood home as “a petting zoo of instruments.”
Although he did his undergraduate degree at Brandeis University, Mooney-McCoy had always been aware of Gordon College. When the position for Director of Worship opened up in 2006, he hesitated to apply. “For most of my adult life I’ve really struggled with my identity as a musician, particularly when it comes to vocation” he said. “I’ve always been a freelance musician, a church musician. I’ve taught lessons for many years, but very seldom in my life has music been my nine-to-five. I’m actually a computer programmer. I actually spent most of my adult life in tech.”
He ended up missing the initial application deadline, but periodically checked the postings for the next seven years. By coincidence, he ended up meeting Abram Kielsmeier-Jones, the Director of Worship at the time; they became acquaintances. At one point he was even called in by Greg Carmer, chaplain at the time, to advise Kielsmeier-Jones on multicultural worship. Carmer and Mccoy became friends.
When the position of Director of Worship opened up again, Mooney-McCoy saw it not on a job posting, but on a post by Kielsmeier-Jones’ post with a photo captioned: “today’s my last chapel.”
“And I applied.” Says Mooney-McCoy. “So I did get this job because of Facebook; they had another strong candidate. I would have missed it. Jennifer Jukanovich, one of the first things she did was hire me. She started about 2 weeks before I did.”
Mooney-McCoy was exactly what faculty and administration hoped for, but the response from the student body was divided. In November 2013, the Tartan published an article exposing students’ strikingly negative reactions to Mooney McCoy’s style of worship. According to the Tartan: “Survey comments said the chapel ‘should not feel like a performance;’ that a leader should not ‘take the spotlight’ or sing in a ‘ridiculous manner.’”
“People didn’t like the fact that we were using keyboards,” said Mooney-McCoy, “Morning chapel band didn’t have a drum kit; it was like Catacombs divided by two. It was very chill and very mellow and I was hired to bring some energy.”
“The exuberance and energy that I bring was seen as fake, performance, showing off, not honoring God, distracting, to the point where people were saying ‘I’m not going to chapel anymore’,” he said.
Complaints about chapel and worship were most plentiful on social media. “It used to be a varsity sport to take pot shots at chapel,” said Mooney-McCoy. One tweet on #ChapelTweets read “5 bucks says this guy won’t be leading music on prospective student days.” When Mooney-McCoy did perform during chapel on an Experience Gordon day, he replied to the tweet: “you owe me 5 bucks.”
“It was surprising just how stuck y’all would be, I mean you’re too young to be that! This is what old people do, come on!” He laughs, “I am incredibly grateful for the love and support I feel from the students now; I’m humbled.”
While worshipping at Gordon, Mooney-McCoy encourages students to keep an open mind: “As an adult, you choose a church that you like. It has a style of preaching of worship and theology that fits you a demographic that makes you comfortable. Well you all don’t get to choose a chapel that fits you. You’re stuck here! The music’s not going to be what you would have chosen, the preacher’s not going to be who you would have chosen. You don’t know what your going to get. That’s weird, that’s different, that’s challenging.”
Along with the challenge to enjoy unfamiliar styles of worship, Mooney-McCoy also wants every student to have a worship experience at Gordon that really scratches an itch. “My goal is that that would be the case for every student. A couple of times, not every time. And also my prayer would be that students would grow to appreciate ‘Well, that’s not my favorite, but my roommate is just really lost in worship so I’m good.’”
With that in mind, Mooney-McCoy also encourages students to take initiative and create other, unique spaces for different kinds of worship. “Which is why I’m so glad that Tavilla worship is still happening. And we have nothing to do with Tavilla worship, and no intentions of ever having anything to do with it. Which is because we want it to be independent and want it to be what it is,” he said.
Even when faced with all the demand for different styles and nuances of worship, the number one priority of the chapel staff is to glorify God. “And if he wasn’t we’ve got a problem,” says Mooney-McCoy. “That’s non-negotiable, and then we can talk about nuance, stylistic professions, if the music was too loud, or too many misprints in the powerpoint. But first answer that question.”
“The other thing I just want to make sure that all student know, and Sarah, Lauren, Heidi and Tom all feel this way: if you want to get to know us, if you want to talk to us, just ask. It’s really that simple. Because this is the best part of our job. And I’m busy and I’ve got a lot to do but I will make that time. We all feel that way, like, really strongly.”
The Boston Globe published the article “Chapel services test Gordon College’s values” in 2014, meaning it got attention from everyone who knew Mooney-McCoy. Even now, people walk up to him in his hometown and ask how things are going with Gordon. And to that he replies, “‘It’s going well!’ I’m so happy to be able to say that!”
“We’ve come light years. It’s wonderful to be able to say that, and say, you know what, we had some problems, and we got it together” said Mooney-McCoy, ”and I’ve certainly changed and grown and nuanced, and I feel like I’ve gotten better at serving you guys.”