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Male visitors at the Fifth Sunday sing-off this past June, held at Greater St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Coconut Grove, scan for friends as they listen to the choruses. For this occasion the sanctuary is so crowded that folding chairs have been set up in the aisles beside the pews. The grand church has fifteen crystal chandeliers suspended from high wooden rafters. Behind the choir loft are three-story, floor-to-ceiling windows separated by strips of purple and gold stained glass. A framed letter by the door from President Clinton commends Greater St. Paul on its 100th anniversary. Eighteen-year-old Marcus Fouquet, who arrived from Haiti five years ago after his parents disappeared in political violence, reads it carefully.
He's tall and lanky and has two deep slash scars across his cheek, reminders of the violent melee that separated him from his parents. The shield he's adopted in his new land is an optimism so relentless he won't let himself mourn any loss: not the theft of his "lucky pen" by a customer at the fast-food stand where he works, or his whole stolen youth. He scribbles with a chewed pencil during the sing-off, noting whether a male chorus has a friendly or haughty demeanor, hoping to find one he'll feel comfortable joining.
Deacon Mitchell didn't feel that Mount Sinai was ready for this spotlight. ("It's a little bit too much like a competition," he says.) But he acts as emcee for the event, and most of his chorus is in attendance. Men are arrayed in gorgeously hued group suits, backed by everything from trumpets to saxophones. When a new chorus that hasn't had time to buy group suits sings in neckties and shirtsleeves, Mitchell feels obliged to chide the audience for remaining seated through the first number. "This is about singing, not just showing," he says. "Some of us may be driving a plain car down the music highway. Some may be driving a Lexus. But we're all gonna make it to the bright lights of the big city." The crowd cheers and is on its feet for the second song.
The number "Heavenly Choir" triggers a full-scale house-wreck as a chorus in azure suits sings that there'll be no "hatred, envy, racism, or cruelty" above, which draws cheers. But it's their sexy Barry White delivery that makes a man behind Marcus laugh and yell, "I know what you're doing to the ladies, you bad boys!" Marcus gets to his feet along with the rest of the crowd as the chorus members, still singing, file down the center aisle, all eyes on them. When they pause at Marcus's pew, he draws back abruptly into the shadows.
"Maybe I'm not ready for a chorus, standing up in front of people with this," he says, brushing a finger across his cheek. "I'm not a churchgoing, praying man. But I carry these stories in my head. I thought, maybe in America there's a friend I haven't met yet I can say them to. But maybe I can't make a friend like that with these people yet. Maybe I don't think like they think. But I can sing, though, so I can have that," and he points in the direction of the music, which is floating up past the colossal windows framing crimson and lavender sunset skies that are beautiful and vast, but silent.