Gospel Truth

Pastors in South Dade's black churches have discovered one sure way to attract male membership: Start a choir

When Nathaniel Williamson was four, he and his twin sister were left for good at the house his grandfather built, a pretty cottage in Perrine with red cement hearts embedded in a white stucco exterior. The reason is still a mystery to him. ("They say my mother had a problem when I was born, and they're trying to help her change," says Nathaniel, now twelve.) It was also the night a local drug dealer stabbed a customer for mocking his claim of having once been a high school track star. What Nathaniel clearly remembers about that evening arrival in his new home is that all the rooms had a sweet scent: chocolate, cinnamon, melted butter. "And when my grandmother saw all I owned was the pair of shorts and shirt I was wearing, she said, 'The first thing we got to do is buy him Sunday clothes,'" he recalls. "She took a day off from her bakery job to get them, she was so worried about getting me to church."

She fretted less after she saw how much he liked singing in Mount Sinai Baptist's junior choir, although he sometimes fell asleep during sermons. But when he visited a Homestead church a few years ago to see an all-male chorus for the first time, Nathaniel -- school athlete, Tupac Shakur-Michael Jordan fan, and crush object for several of Mount Sinai's sixth-grade girls -- knew exactly what he wanted be.

"There was this seven-year-old boy playing drums for them who was great!" Nathaniel says. "I saved up the money and bought drumsticks. Then I practiced with trash cans for drums."

Last June Mount Sinai Baptist formed its own male chorus. "I joined at their first meeting," he says. At Christmas his grandparents gave Nathaniel a surprise gift -- two snare drums-- and threw a huge celebration. "My grandmom made turkey with oyster stuffing, pigs' feet, homemade sausage, and white cake with chocolate-chip icing, and invited everyone to hear me play real drums. I knew it was a big deal to be a male chorus musician because even my mom and dad came to the house." Though his parents live just three blocks away from the church, he isn't sure if they've heard him play at Mount Sinai. Yet Nathaniel, like all his Perrine and Cutler Ridge friends, practices music as fervently and steadfastly as kids who shoot endless hoops, dreaming of pro basketball.

Churches in other cities occasionally feature a men's choir, but in South Dade's black churches the male chorus has become a sensation. "Even if the pews are all women and children, with only five men in a congregation, a church will plead with them to form a male chorus," explains Greg Mitchell, the Mount Sinai chorus vice president and son of its conductor. Dade County's eighteen male choruses perform once each month at their own churches. Then all of them gather every month that has a fifth Sunday for a five-hour sing-off. And their churches honor them with an annual "Men's Appreciation Day" (always on Father's Day), in a celebration as emotionally charged as Christmas or Easter.

Men in Mount Sinai's chorus often work fourteen-hour days on their jobs, then go through a choir practice as strenuous as an aerobic workout. (When a man sings gospel, he does not just stand there.) Nathaniel and his grade school friends study their music partly because they love performing and think it would be fun to be stars. After all, gospel was Motown's customary precursor to commercial stardom. Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles -- who sang in Tampa and Jacksonville choirs as a teen -- all made the leap from gospel to chart-busting soul.

"We like it when the church people get on their feet, clapping along. Yes -- and girls like seeing us." A smile flicks across Nathaniel's face. "But we know also what us being in the male chorus means here. Grownups don't think we know. But we know," he says with a shrug. "When they see us, they know that not all the men are dying. And we won't disappear. That's one reason I know, for sure."

Here's a secret fear of ministers: walking into the sanctuary on Sunday and seeing only women. White pastors tend to blame men who view churchgoing as a female social chore. The dearth of male congregants, for them, means less help in community outreach. "But in the black community, men dropping out was a cultural disaster, given the life-and-death role our churches had in politics and the civil rights movement," says Baltimore resident Olin Moyd, who wrote a landmark history of African-American religion, Redemption in Black Theology. "There were so few male congregants that women had to become deacons, something unheard of when ministers and laymen aiding them had been the pillars of black neighborhoods. And we weren't just losing men in the Eighties -- a whole generation of young men was never even walking to our doors."

But in Miami, ministers discovered an ingenious drawing card: music groups. Young men who deemed churches irrelevant in a city torn by four riots in ten years would still show up sporadically if they got a chance to sing before a crowd. "I don't know how it is in white schools," says Bobby Jones, one of the Mount Sinai chorus founders, "but in black schools, singing anywhere there's people -- parties, family weddings -- gives a male real social power with other guys and the ladies. It's a point of pride."

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