Visalia has produced a wide array of musical talent—from classical musicians to indie rock bands, pop stars to Broadway actors.

One of Visalia’s most beloved groups, the Celebrant Singers, is marking a major milestone in August, honoring a 40-year contribution to the Christian music genre.

As is their tradition, the “Celebrants,” as they’re often referred to, recently presented a homecoming concert, marking the return of missionary teams who have traveled the world this summer, bringing the light and hope of Christ to thousands.
Founder and Visalia native Jon Stemkoski—who was interviewed in July in New York City just before catching a flight to Suriname for a week of concerts—said that while most native Visalians are familiar with the group, many new residents may not be aware of their ministry. On the other hand, many long-time Visalians came out to support them on August 12 during their Grand Homecoming Concert, where 70 of the world’s best musicians performed live —30 singers and a 40-piece orchestra.

“Visalia is my hometown. I’m proud of our city and always happy to come home after our various mission outreaches,” said Jon. “The Visalia community has always been very supportive of our ministry, and for that I am deeply grateful. In my view, we have some of the finest young musicians in the country who work hard and are serious with their ministry—they deserve a big ‘welcome home.’”

The Celebrant Singers began in 1977 after Jon received a call from God while in Poland, which at that time was under Communist rule. He was touring with a group called the Continental Singers, whose mission is similar to the Celebrants: to build disciples of Christ and spread the gospel message through the gift of music.

Fast-forward 40 years, and the Celebrants have 3,200 alumni from every state, as well as 25 countries. Through their live concerts, the musicians have shared the gospel message in 101 countries with eight million people.

From private meetings with Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, to performing at the Vatican at Easter in front of 500,000 people, Jon and his fellow musicians have indeed had missionary experiences most will never know.

Reflecting on the road leading to this month’s reunion and celebration, Jon admits to feeling overwhelmed, yet grateful.

“We have been extraordinarily blessed with God’s provision and protection,” he said. “By His grace, we’ve never had a major bus or airplane accident and we’ve never gone hungry. Everything God promised He would do when He called me in Poland in the ‘70s, He has faithfully brought to pass. I often say, ‘If I die tomorrow, I’ve had three lifetimes of experiences…all by His grace.’”

For Jon, the question of a favorite memory is a difficult one. He holds dear the memories of numerous private moments spent with Mother Teresa, who was deeply interested in the Celebrants and canonized Saint Teresa of Calcutta in 2016. But just as precious to him are the moments others decide to give their lives to Christ.

Responding to questions before a flight back to the United States from Suriname, Jon wrote, “Anytime we see someone come to a personal, life-changing encounter with Christ as their Savior and Lord, it would rank at the top. After all, that’s our entire raison detre—our very reason for being.”

Benefits for Visalia

Jon noted that a by-product of the Celebrants being based in Visalia is that many of them have chosen to make Visalia their permanent home, thus benefiting the community in a variety of ways. Some have become business owners or teachers in local schools, and still others have continued their musicianship by performing with groups such as the Sequoia Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Tulare County Symphony).

Wes Rowland, owner of The Cruise Experts in Visalia, spent 17 years touring with the Celebrant Singers as a trumpet player. With the Celebrants, he visited countries such as Iran and India, and then served as the director of admissions, recruiting musicians from around the world.

At its peak in 1992, the Celebrants had seven teams totaling 175 musicians on the road, and another 30 full-time administrative staff members working at the Visalia headquarters, as well as small offices in Canada and India.

Wes, a native of Kentucky, looks back on his time with the Celebrants fondly, recognizing that a choice to join the group took his life in a new direction.

“I came to Visalia specifically to join the Celebrants, as a lot of former Celebrants did. I never intended to stay, but here we are,” Wes said. “Forty years is a remarkable achievement, and being a Celebrant impacted my life in a life-changing way. I have a debt of gratitude to this community for embracing me and my business.”

At last count, more than 70 couples met through the celebrants and have married and settled down in Visalia.

One such couple is Sheryl and David Donald. David is a childhood friend of Jon, and Sheryl attended a Celebrants concert in her hometown of Pittsburg, PA. Auditions were being held, so she decided to try out for a vocal role “with much fear and trembling,” she said.

After graduating college with a degree in Speech Language Pathology, she embarked on a summer tour and ended up spending 12 years with the group.

David worked with Celebrants for 27 years as both a musician and in a pastoral role for the members. In fact, the couple’s four children—Danielle, Jonathan, Ben, and Michelle—have also performed with Celebrants in various capacities. Danielle even toured with a team until she was two years old; during that time she traveled thousands of miles, was held by Pope John Paul II, and kissed by Mother Teresa.

Sheryl said her experience with Celebrants has helped shaped her worldview.

“Experiencing the world and its variety of cultures, there are so many things that shape and mold our person. All the experiences I had with Celebrants equal who I am in Christ today,” she said.

Sheryl likened the bond between Celebrants as one deeper than a life-long friendship. “We are connected in ways that are so deep,” she said. “I am amazed that God has taken me, because my gift is so meager. But you put me as one of 25, and together we do something. The whole concept of the team, people united for one purpose, to see God take that and put us all around the world to impact people for eternity, it is amazing what God will do.”

David has spent many days reflecting on the Celebrants’ milestone.

“As we’ve been approaching this time, I’ve been talking to a lot of people, sharing stories of what God has done,” he said. “We’ve been pulled off buses at gunpoint in Central America, had a contract on us in Ireland. But God also opened doors in Albania, Cuba, and Bulgaria, places where it had been 50 years since people had even talked of God. Looking back over those scenarios, it’s been such a privilege to be an observer of what God was doing and somehow join Him in a little bit of it. He has opened doors that no man can shut.”

In a fast-changing world full of hope, but quite often deep despair, Jon believes that the best years of the Celebrant Singers are ahead.

“Our world is groaning for redemption and the need has never been greater for the propagation of the gospel,” he said. “The primary component needed is committed people with music gifts and a heart for God, to be willing to ‘leave their nets and boats’ and follow Him. If Christian musicians will rise to that challenge, the future is incomprehensible.”