Gospel Truth

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

A singer laughs: "Man, don't tell all our secrets! There are two girls here! They may be spies for the feminine side."

"It's a question of situation," Diane explains. "You don't sing soul themes in church. Like you wouldn't sing "Kum Ba Ya" to a juke joint full of womanizers, would you?"

"If the spirit moved me," her guest retorts. "That's how men are about their music."

"I love the blues, but not in church," Mitchell says gently. "Music can't do everything for a man. Some words he's just got to say on his own." The guest shrugs and sits down to watch Diane run scales.

Each rehearsal opens the same way. As Mitchell jots attendees' names in a notebook, without even glancing up he sings offhandedly in a strong, pure baritone: "Glory, glory, hallelujah." The men slouch in the pews as if on comfy couches, their arms draped along the hard wooden backs, and sing the response at perfect pitch: "Since I laid my burden down!" Mitchell flows from the last chorus into a prayer: "We have work to do and a mark to make before we lay our earthly burdens down somewhere in your sweet, safe New Canaan. Protect us in our dangerous world, and help us make our mark. Thank you for bringing us down the streets alive, for bringing us this far."

Bobby Jones has a dream for the male chorus. "I'd like us to go R.R. Moton School and find one family, hopefully with sons, and help them for six months," he says. "If we're shooting baskets or going to the park -- it's easier for guys to open their hearts more by taking action, more than just talking. The right woman teaches us about that. In the meantime, even singing can be a bond for us."

The men climb into the choir loft -- raised tiers behind the preachers' chairs and separated from them by a rail. Above and behind the chorus is a baptismal tank.

"Okay, I don't want no walking, no talking through our music," Mitchell says. "It's straight down to business -- this is our last chance." In the next three hours, they sing, shout, and clap through nine songs. Nathaniel drums until his shirt is soaked and his hands ache. When he falters, Diane leaps from the piano bench to clap alongside him until he recovers the beat. A female congregation member slips into the room and removes the pink roses from the pulpit and piano vases. Men's Appreciation Day decor will be more macho.

Since their inception, male choruses have traditionally served lunches for the occasion, but as the men pack up to leave, the refreshments committee remembers it forgot to buy food. Mitchell makes them write down their assignments: chicken legs, pound cake, Styrofoam containers. "You guys make the punch," he tells two nervous volunteers. "Well, you can learn how. Just dump together some cans of juice and a pound of sugar, and make Diabetes in a Cup if you have to, but the male chorus has got to hand out lunches." For Men's Appreciation Day, chorus-made box lunches are as resonant a symbol as wine and communion wafers; they are the promise of a man's ability to provide.

Before they depart, the men form a circle, raise their right hands, and recite a benediction: "Lord, bless us and keep us until we meet again." Several young men add, "Give us one more day, Lord," as others say, "Amen." It is a recurring theme in the male chorus prayers and will run through the Sunday sermon as well: the sense that this may be the last chance, not at Heaven but at making any imprint on Earth. In addition, the undercurrent of peril among moral, hard-working men surfaces in the printed Men's Appreciation Day programs of many South Dade churches.

Businesses from Bug Busters to carry-out restaurants buy ads in the programs, saluting male co-workers and employees. Fathers do the same for sons. If a boy has no man in the house, then a male member of the congregation, or the pastor, or even an area merchant, will write a congratulatory message. And there are memorials to men who died in hazardous lines of work such as firefighting and construction. Some survivors write tributes directly to sons, fathers, and brothers who died in homicides, words cast like messages in bottles on some vast ocean: "Dear Big Brother: I'm proud you studied hard and were a good man before you were killed. Maybe when we meet again, we will get to talk about the great things I know you'd of done."

Mount Sinai's red tile roof was shredded by Hurricane Andrew; the cinder-block front faces a tangle of orange perimeter tape and bulldozed asphalt chunks. Women still outnumber men two-to-one in the congregation, but since the male chorus debut, there's been enough money in the offering plates for renovations. On Men's Appreciation Day cars fill the parking lot and spill over to Nat's Soul Food Shack, blocks away. A vintage white Thunderbird, its top down, pulls up, packed with grade school girls in pastel dresses, like flowers in a florist's box. "Nathaniel! Nathaniel!" they call, waving to their favorite performer.

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