A proud and joyful spirit filled the congregation at Timoth Baptist Church in West Baltimore early yesterday as worshipers swayed to songs performed by a troupe of singers describing how African-Americans have persevered despite their troubled history -- from the horrors of slavery to the desperate fight for civil rights.
But the mood grew somber when the singers launched into a song describing a black family whose son Bobby, hooked on drugs, was shot in a drug dispute. It is a scene that many in the audience knew first-hand, and a scene many of the performers live with every day.
They are the March Singers, and many of them work at March Funeral Home, one of the largest black-owned funeral homes in the country.
"I figured people would realize that if a funeral home is saying there's too much killing then things must really be bad," said Erich March, general manager of the March Funeral Home, who organized the March Singers two years ago.
Last year March Funeral Home buried more than 2,500 people. More than 10 percent of those buried were murder victims, and their average age was 29. That trend must stop, say the March Singers.
Us killing us is suicide. Us killing us is genocide.
It is the powerfully macabre chorus to the song which has become the group's anthem. The song, entitled "Needlessly," looks at Bobby's death through the hearts of his surviving loved ones.
Bobby, I can't believe you died.
This pain I feel inside.
You were a part of me. Why didn't I see
Where you were headed? . . .
Like so many other sons,
Your life had just begun.
Now, you're done. Needlessly.
It is the cry of so many mothers who have lost their sons to violence, says Mr. March, who wrote "Needlessly."
"We deal with death a lot more than the average person," he said. "I mean it's one thing to see it on TV. But when we go to work we see it in the flesh, with no blood, on the embalming table.
Mr. March says he was tired of making funeral arrangements for young blacks cut down in drug-related arguments -- often by other young blacks. And, he said, it became increasingly apparent that many young people neither value their lives nor understand the finality of death.
He wrote "Needlessly" hoping to explain the impact violent deaths have on loved ones.
"These are the kinds of people we deal with every day -- the families," he said. "We are hoping that no matter what a kid is into that they still love their families and that they don't want their families to suffer."
Mr. March knew music was the perfect medium for his message, because of its universal appeal. But he didn't have the voice to deliver it himself. He went to his employees, many of whom are involved with their church choirs.
The youngest member of the March Singers, 14-year-old Katrina D. Kearney, is too young to hold a job. But she has been a regular visitor at the funeral home.
"I used to visit the funeral home with my grandmother," said Katrina, who lost both her parents to illnesses several years ago. "She liked to go just to look at the bodies."
Katrina said she became fascinated by death, until she saw the body of a child.
"It really scared me," she said. "I swore I wasn't going to have any kids because I didn't want them to get killed.
"I never knew they made caskets that small."
That day, Katrina said she learned that death is painful and ugly. Now she tries to share that message with her peers through the songs she performs with the March Singers.
Bobby, has what they said come true,
That drugs would be the death of you?
started out as fun, but ended with a gun.
Now you're not around.
Norman Kenny, an assistant funeral director at March, says he learned not to get too emotional about the deaths he sees. And, while he believes in the mission of The March Singers, he's realistic about what they can accomplish.
"We know God has a plan and we can't change it," he says. "But we were instructed to go and get this message out to people. Those who are already hooked on drugs, they don't hear us. But hopefully we can reach the people that aren't already hooked."
The group spent a few exhausting months recording their songs, but the album, including several gospel songs, has gotten little air play.
Musical director Gwendolyn Neale says, "A couple of stations would play 'Needlessly' at midnight because they said the lyrics were too morose or because the song is too long.
"But every day you hear about killings and the other day there was a gun battle in the city," she said. "The message in our music is prime time and it deserves more air play."