Gospel Truth

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

When Nathaniel Williamson was four, he and his twin sister were left for good at the house his grandfather built, a pretty cottage in Perrine with red cement hearts embedded in a white stucco exterior. The reason is still a mystery to him. ("They say my mother had a problem when I was born, and they're trying to help her change," says Nathaniel, now twelve.) It was also the night a local drug dealer stabbed a customer for mocking his claim of having once been a high school track star. What Nathaniel clearly remembers about that evening arrival in his new home is that all the rooms had a sweet scent: chocolate, cinnamon, melted butter. "And when my grandmother saw all I owned was the pair of shorts and shirt I was wearing, she said, 'The first thing we got to do is buy him Sunday clothes,'" he recalls. "She took a day off from her bakery job to get them, she was so worried about getting me to church."

She fretted less after she saw how much he liked singing in Mount Sinai Baptist's junior choir, although he sometimes fell asleep during sermons. But when he visited a Homestead church a few years ago to see an all-male chorus for the first time, Nathaniel -- school athlete, Tupac Shakur-Michael Jordan fan, and crush object for several of Mount Sinai's sixth-grade girls -- knew exactly what he wanted be.

"There was this seven-year-old boy playing drums for them who was great!" Nathaniel says. "I saved up the money and bought drumsticks. Then I practiced with trash cans for drums."

Last June Mount Sinai Baptist formed its own male chorus. "I joined at their first meeting," he says. At Christmas his grandparents gave Nathaniel a surprise gift -- two snare drums-- and threw a huge celebration. "My grandmom made turkey with oyster stuffing, pigs' feet, homemade sausage, and white cake with chocolate-chip icing, and invited everyone to hear me play real drums. I knew it was a big deal to be a male chorus musician because even my mom and dad came to the house." Though his parents live just three blocks away from the church, he isn't sure if they've heard him play at Mount Sinai. Yet Nathaniel, like all his Perrine and Cutler Ridge friends, practices music as fervently and steadfastly as kids who shoot endless hoops, dreaming of pro basketball.

Churches in other cities occasionally feature a men's choir, but in South Dade's black churches the male chorus has become a sensation. "Even if the pews are all women and children, with only five men in a congregation, a church will plead with them to form a male chorus," explains Greg Mitchell, the Mount Sinai chorus vice president and son of its conductor. Dade County's eighteen male choruses perform once each month at their own churches. Then all of them gather every month that has a fifth Sunday for a five-hour sing-off. And their churches honor them with an annual "Men's Appreciation Day" (always on Father's Day), in a celebration as emotionally charged as Christmas or Easter.

Men in Mount Sinai's chorus often work fourteen-hour days on their jobs, then go through a choir practice as strenuous as an aerobic workout. (When a man sings gospel, he does not just stand there.) Nathaniel and his grade school friends study their music partly because they love performing and think it would be fun to be stars. After all, gospel was Motown's customary precursor to commercial stardom. Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles -- who sang in Tampa and Jacksonville choirs as a teen -- all made the leap from gospel to chart-busting soul.

"We like it when the church people get on their feet, clapping along. Yes -- and girls like seeing us." A smile flicks across Nathaniel's face. "But we know also what us being in the male chorus means here. Grownups don't think we know. But we know," he says with a shrug. "When they see us, they know that not all the men are dying. And we won't disappear. That's one reason I know, for sure."

Here's a secret fear of ministers: walking into the sanctuary on Sunday and seeing only women. White pastors tend to blame men who view churchgoing as a female social chore. The dearth of male congregants, for them, means less help in community outreach. "But in the black community, men dropping out was a cultural disaster, given the life-and-death role our churches had in politics and the civil rights movement," says Baltimore resident Olin Moyd, who wrote a landmark history of African-American religion, Redemption in Black Theology. "There were so few male congregants that women had to become deacons, something unheard of when ministers and laymen aiding them had been the pillars of black neighborhoods. And we weren't just losing men in the Eighties -- a whole generation of young men was never even walking to our doors."

But in Miami, ministers discovered an ingenious drawing card: music groups. Young men who deemed churches irrelevant in a city torn by four riots in ten years would still show up sporadically if they got a chance to sing before a crowd. "I don't know how it is in white schools," says Bobby Jones, one of the Mount Sinai chorus founders, "but in black schools, singing anywhere there's people -- parties, family weddings -- gives a male real social power with other guys and the ladies. It's a point of pride."

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?"

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."

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.

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?"

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.

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