Gospel Truth

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

In April 1989, three months after yet another riot left a man dead, four male choruses met at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church on SW 100th Avenue in west Perrine and formed the South Dade Male Chorus Union. "Getting together to talk about personal problems -- men weren't interested, not comfortable doing that," says the Union's founder and current president, Deacon John Bruton, who once sang and played the trumpet at jazz clubs in Miami and Homestead. "But they liked getting their fellowship, a sense of brotherhood, through music. There's art involved because male voices make more beautiful harmonies than female voices, even though some people don't believe that." Currently male choruses from twelve different churches are members; six others have asked to join.

The only requirements are that the choruses sing at Fifth Sunday celebrations, held on a rotating basis at each member church, and donate $50 to the church hosting the event. Mount Sinai, founded in 1930, could spot the money but not the men. The pastor enlisted Deacon John Mitchell, an accomplished former blues singer, to recruit males. "No one wanted to be the first guy sitting in a sea of females," Mitchell remembers. "And they knew that once they joined, the eyes of Cutler Ridge and Perrine would be on them." If they stopped attending, there would be gossip and concern. Deacons would be deployed to return the prodigal to the fold.

In Perrine and Cutler Ridge, turquoise, peach, and sea-foam green houses line streets shaded by trees planted after Hurricane Andrew. But until police sweeps began three years ago, they were occasional battlefields for two rival gangs, the Latin Kings and Latin Disciples (who had a knife fight in 1994 at a Cutler Ridge theater; kids attending a Disney movie scattered for cover) and a hangout for drug dealers, most of whom Bobby Jones had known since they were children. When he would ask them by name to leave the corner so his family could sleep, they respected him enough to go, but they always returned the next day. "My wild days -- when I was in my twenties smoking weed and drinking, solving the world's problems on the corners with other guys with no life -- those days were over," he muses. "I had a job, was raising a family. I wasn't worried about slipping. I just wasn't happy with how my life was going."

Jones stayed at home when his wife went to church at Mount Sinai. Then Mitchell asked him to come discuss forming a chorus, but he declined. "I didn't want to go unless I felt something in my heart," he says. His conversion was incremental. When his boss at the plant where he drives a truck began badgering him, "the old Bobby Jones would have cursed him, gone home yelling," he says. "I thought I'd see if I could get him off my back by telling him I'd found Jesus and that the power of love was so strong, nothing petty was gonna cause conflict for me again." Did it work? "Well, it scared him!" Jones laughs. "So, yeah! And suddenly I realized I was tired of being difficult and miserable. I wanted my life to make a mark that would last. Mount Sinai was a chance to do that."

His wife was astonished last year when he put on a suit and drove her to church. Word that a man under 65 had attended raced through the neighborhood. And Jones was well-known; besides raising three children and a godson, he'd coached several Little League players along to college scholarships. The next Sunday, four new young men attended.

Last summer Mitchell announced the formation of a Mount Sinai male chorus, the latest in Dade County. It might take two years of hard practice for them to be polished enough for the South Dade Male Chorus Union sing-offs, he warned. Twenty-two men and five boys came to the first rehearsal. Nathaniel sat next to Jones.

The week before the Mount Sinai male chorus's first Men's Appreciation Day, Nathaniel is practicing three hours each day. "I used to play the drums in my bedroom when I was there alone," he says. But a male relative who successfully completed a drug-treatment program now shares the room. "He's doing great!" Nathaniel says. "He works hard at his job, goes to church. He can't get to chorus rehearsals 'cause of his hours, but he's singing with a trio on Men's Day." His relative works the night shift and needs to sleep by day, so Nathaniel pounds the drums in the front yard next to a row of once-red geraniums bleached beige by the sun.

When a visitor takes Nathaniel to lunch at Denny's, he freezes a few steps from the door. "Oh! Look at this!" he gasps in amazement, pointing at the magenta, purple, and white periwinkles that spill across a small stretch of grass. "Oh, man, this is a castle garden! How do they get flowers to grow beautiful as this?" He edges closer to inspect, then asks, "How do they keep people from stealing them? Do the police come at night to guard them?"

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