Gospel Truth

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

His grandmother gave him permission to order a meal he likes for his restaurant outing. He chooses a 32-ounce chocolate milk shake in a frosted glass, the same size strawberry shake, and a large basket of French fries. He chats about his advanced music class at R.R. Moton Elementary School (where he's a football running back, basketball point guard, and in a Goosebumps reading club). Students can check out a violin, keyboard, or guitar, as well as drums, overnight. "Guys never get teased for studying if it's drums 'cause that's a man thing," he says. "Piano's okay too, 'cause guys can look cool playing." He also spends Sunday afternoons at a Richmond Heights church with ten other kids being tutored by a former jazz drummer.

"When I play two services a day, I get bored during sermons," he admits. He and his buddies stay awake then by playing hangman and SOS. And until an irate deaconess confiscated it, they used to study a photo of Toni Braxton to see if she was in a sheer body stocking or naked. Mount Sinai also has three coed choirs, and Nathaniel plays for all their rehearsals. "My grandma said not to because my back hurt like crazy -- they just have a stool with no back to lean on behind the drums," he says. "But I didn't want to hurt the other choirs' feelings when they asked me." His voice drops and his eyes dart off. "So I just never mention it to her no more so she won't worry. I just walk to the church those days by myself."

What's his dream job when he grows up? He mimes shooting a basket, then shrugs. "Know a kid who doesn't want to do pro basketball? Even if I did, though, I'd want to be a drummer in a gospel group. I like Tupac, but rap has a different beat. And there's lots of ways those people die." He swirls his straw through his pink shake. "I don't think much about growing up. Grownups can have so many problems. Sometimes they disappear. But no matter what, I got the drums, so I can hold on to music I love. The men in the chorus have wives they love. I want that too." He nods toward the window. "And a house with flowers like that would be a good home for a man to come to."

Nathaniel's friends in the chorus, Lebaron and Demetrius, both twelve, buy two-dollar shoe boxes full of gospel tapes at the South Dade Flea Market. They inch their way through a song they like, stopping the tape every ten seconds to write down the words on a piece of paper. Then they memorize and sing it. With a can of baby powder subbing for a mike, they refine moves -- spinning, clapping, dropping on one knee -- they hope Deacon Mitchell will someday say are smooth enough to use. The chorus goal is always stirring an audience to its feet: shouting, clapping, swaying -- what gospel singers call "house-wrecking."

There's a music legend that Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Jr., came up with the marketing term "soul music" because white consumers wouldn't buy a gospel sound, even if its lyrics addressed the vagaries of human romance rather than sacred love. Soul and gospel singers take identical vocal paths to wreck a house: call-and-response patterns, acting out an emotional journey, and, most important, wooing listeners into complicity. When James Brown and Ray Charles yell, "Let me hear you say yeah!" and "Can I get a witness?" those pleas come straight from the choir loft.

The Friday-night rehearsal is the eighteen-member chorus's last practice shot before its first Men's Appreciation Day. A glass chandelier chimes softly in the air-conditioned breeze. The white and gold piano sits to the left on the floor, below the platform for the preachers and pulpit. Filling the right corner of the stage is a brand-new bass drum, two snares, and two sets of cymbals. Mount Sinai's congregation was so eager to encourage Nathaniel that it bought the $500 set for him. (Nathaniel used to lug his two snare drums the four blocks from his house to the church.) Men arrive in jeans and T-shirts -- "Kentucky Fried Chicken," "Key West," "Planet Hollywood." Half are under forty; the youngest member is nine.

Diane Williams, the pianist, dresses for the occasion, swathed in an elegant scarlet pantsuit, her hair swept up over gold hoop earrings, her red nails perfectly manicured. Her male guest, who attends rehearsal regularly but won't sing, picks up a long-running argument.

"You used to sing blues, Deacon Mitchell, so it's not like you never sang what women do to men," he says. "More young guys would come to church if you let them sing about their needs." The chorus roars; he persists. "If you secretly love a girl and can't think how to tell her so your heart won't break, and you work out the problem in music, you're testifying! You sing your worry, the church yells how to turn it around, you slap 'And Jesus saved me' on the end, you got a church song. Y'all sitting here know that 65, maybe even 68 percent of all men do is for one true lady's love."

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