One of our richest traditions in Maryland is gospel music. Spiritually and socially, it is a mainstay in many communities.
At two local Broadneck churches, committed singers and musicians create this historic and heartfelt music at least once a week. Their inspiration carries on what has been a vital mission to their members for generations and their congregations are thankful each and every Sunday for their joyful noise.
On a recent Sunday inside Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church, the 11 a.m. service kicked off with the choir's procession. Soon the choir's voices filled the church, in preparation for the sermon delivered by Reverend Stephen A. Tillett. Gospel is an integral part of worship here and in no time, the audience was participating in the music. The sound was big, and the positive energy was contagious.
"I began singing around age three," said Sharon Austin of Annapolis after the service. She lit up when she talked about her music. "It helps move people toward God. It lifts them up when they're down. The choir is also a ministry. It reminds people that God is there in good times and bad. It's all built up in gospel singing: it gives people conviction in the Lord and prepares them for the message."
Kathy Stansbury, who is Austin's sister, said that she got her start in gospel singing at about age seven. It was the logical step for her since their father was also in a gospel choir.
"Music is uplifting to the spirit," Kathy explained. "It sets the tone for the whole service. It clears their minds to praise God."
The choir is popular, and she says it magnetizes people from every generation, as evidenced by their members' varying ages. For Kathy Stansbury, the best part is "praising God in song and hoping to touch someone with what you're singing. There's something about music that stirs the soul."
Minister of Music Alvin Stansbury, brother to both Sharon Austin and Kathy Stansbury, directs three of the church's five choirs. He explained that the choir's makeup reflects the church's.
"There is a lot of family here. Everyone's related: aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers. The church members are very much connected in respect to family. The family core from earlier is still here," he says, referring to the church's 160-year-old lineage.
The church and the music have been a powerful force for the community, going back to the slave era, when people didn't just worship or sing for the sake of doing it. They did so to make their days bearable and for survival. Gospel was and is, through the work of leaders like Alvin Stansbury, a connection to a God who helps during trials. Stansbury is charged with teaching songs to choir members "and more or less keeping a tone of spirituality in the choir."
"Back when we were kids, we didn't have a choice; nobody asked us whether we wanted to be in the choir or not. They told us, 'You are in the choir,' not like the kids today," Marilyn Lewis, Choir Director, said, explaining the history of gospel singing at Mt. Calvary United Methodist Church in Arnold.
"It's part of our heritage from back in the times of slavery, when music gave the slaves hope. It still gives people a lift today. When I go home after singing here, I know everything will be alright. I feel encouraged. It helps keep me going, and I know the music has that affect on other people too."
Lewis directs The Inspirational Choir, one of seven different choirs that have a home at Mt. Calvary United Methodist Church. The Inspirational Choir is part of the morning service every second and fourth Sunday of the month. In addition, she said, "We practice twice a month in the winter, unless there's a special occasion or special program, such as a holiday." The choir also gets together for charity. "For the last sixteen years we have done a concert for someone who lost their daughter. It's a scholarship fundraiser for children who attend Saint Martin's in-the-Field."
I stopped by Mt. Calvary last week, and talked to choir members briefly after they finished rehearsng for an upcoming memorial service. Christine Pack, who sings at Mt. Calvary, started gospel singing at the age of thirteen.
"My mother was the 'mother of the choir,' which means she was in charge and oversaw the choir, in charge making sure everyone was where they were supposed to be. She was like a chaperone," explained Pack.
"I'm an implant," revealed Delores "Dee" Smith, Certified Lay Minister. "I moved from another church to Mount Calvary United Methodist Church at the age of 45. But gospel music has always been my passion."
"Gospel music moves the people. It brings a lot of spirit. It ministers to them as much as the preaching," said Carol Sellman.
Member Janice Green added that the thing she enjoys most about being part of the choir is the way it reaches people's hearts. "The best part is being able to deliver people. They can be saved by your singing. You can see it in them."
The members of the Mt. Calvary choir began their rehearsal last week by forming a circle and joining hands and praying; they ended their long weekday with another group prayer before heading home. They come together to practice and benefit the community when called upon, touching the lives of everyone who hears them sing.
Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church
657 Broadneck Road, Annapolis MD 21409
Mt. Calvary United Methodist Church
1236 Jones Station Road, Arnold, MD 21012