Gospel Truth

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

Unlike coed choirs, male choruses never wear robes. They wear "group suits," like those worn by blues or soul performers. Perrine's B.B.B. Fashions is a wildly popular supplier. (Owner Jose Gonzales attends Fifth Sundays and is introduced from the audience as the choral groups' friend.) The store offers suits in gemlike colors: garnet, sapphire, amber, jade, pearl, amethyst -- all imbued with a luminous sheen under stained-glass light. Two weeks earlier, Mount Sinai's chorus, including Nathaniel, was fitted in deep burgundy suits and matching shirts with small silver collar pins. The jackets are trimmed in rich maroon brocade. Giant bouquets of burgundy snapdragons fill vases all over the pulpit and piano on this special Sunday, June 15.

To fortify the slim, wiry Nathaniel for the three-hour service, his grandmother made him scrambled eggs, bacon, grits, toast with jam, and home fries -- a breakfast big enough to knock a grizzly bear to its knees. But he leaps nimbly onto the platform next to the seated preachers. In the past eight years, male choruses have become so popular that men who move to Miami will shop several churches, trying to decide which one to join. Mount Sinai's Pastor R.M. Bell spots five new faces at whom to aim his sermon about the return of the prodigal son. The service is carefully paced to build to a crescendo, with prayers and bits of the sermon interspersed among musical numbers by the male chorus. Ministers and deacons read the biblical parable of the rich son squandering his inheritance on hookers and booze until he's starving. "For a famine had struck the land," the Reverend Joseph Turner reads, then pauses. "That land could be Miami. It could be South Dade for us.

"It says the son went to 'a far country,'" he continues. "That country could be a fatal attitude, a sick mind, a bad direction. The prodigal could be on a Perrine corner begging for a dollar or a drink. He may be among 700,000 of what could have been our strongest black men sleeping behind bars tonight."

The room explodes with amens. "Each of you," he points out the handful of men in the audience and sweeps a hand by the male chorus, "was saved so you could save someone else. Look for those prodigals. Have a backbone, but also a compassionate heart. Because the only way a man can say he's truly above sin is to rent an apartment above some sinners."

For the finale, Deacon Mitchell gathers the chorus's five children around the microphone. "It's one thing if people see men my age singing," he whispers to the boys, "but they need to see young men -- that's what gives them hope." He nods to Nathaniel and Diane, who launch into the melody and beat. "Every time I feel the spirit, I feel all right!" the kids belt out, with backup from the men. The crowd rises to its feet, clapping and swaying. The kids dance, swinging into their best front-yard practice moves. "Go, man!" and "Have mercy!" thunder from every corner. "This house is wrecking!" one of the visitors beams.

After the service and the food, Nathaniel and his pals head for their postchurch hangout, the Community Store. It is squat, dull concrete outside, but inside it's a dreamland for boys. One wall glitters with trophies won by local teams the owners sponsor: gold and silver basketball, baseball, and soccer players frozen in heroic poses. An enormous freezer chills brightly wrapped ice-cream treats: Cosmic Hedge Hog pops, American Glory sundae cups, Midnight Miracle eclairs. One wall is covered with unlabeled items so strange they've become legends. Swaths of what looks like snakeskin hang from a nail next to loops of copper balls and dried red flowers curled up like claws. An eleven-year-old boy points to a bundle of straw dangling from a hook. "They took that off a witch's flying broom," he whispers. "I know a guy who saw 'em do it. Something big always happens here."

(In fact, a minute later, a 400-pound hooker stops opposite the store and moons the parking lot. Two Mount Sinai men, protective of the children, clap their hands over youngsters' eyes. "You wouldn't think there'd be a big market for that," one man reflects as he herds the kids indoors.)

Nathaniel heads for the candy shelves to buy his favorites, Now'N'Later and Gummi Worms. "Hey, brother! I saw you playing the drums!" calls Fremont Taylor, a Morehouse College graduate who has just moved to Miami to work for a computer design firm. "You make our people strong!" Nathaniel smiles his thanks as he chews yellow, orange, and green candy worms.

Taylor has been visiting local churches for the past month. "God is like my own father," he says, "missing in action." He bites the words out, his eyes cool beams behind wire-rim glasses. "I'll never teach Sunday school, but I'll sing in a men's chorus because our music is the key to our people's strength. Rich white folks feel life like some damn minuet, all their moves planned. They never live one note from disaster -- car breaks down, you lose your job. Kids farmed out to houses too crazy to sleep in. Grow up with that in your head, and the clock's on you from day one to improvise grace beautiful and fast. That's how gospel sounds. Put the damn clock on minuet people. What sound you think they'd make?"

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