It is after 9 on a Thursday night and 15 or 20 men, working men in denims and corduroys, sweats and double-knits worn as thin as can be, join hands in a circle and sway to the rhythm of a guitar riff.
Eyes closed, they hum with the chord changes, then break into a minor-key version of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus." Joseph E. Kirkland, chaplain of the Johnson Male Chorus, slips in a side door of the Asbury Towne Neck United Methodist Church and begins the prayer. His voiceis barely audible, but the choir members respond, repeating each phrase in gospel harmonies.
For 40 years, the chorus has been singing the old songs in the church just off Ritchie Highway in Severna Park and in churches in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia. Sunday afternoon, March 8, the members will celebrate those years with a concert at the church featuring themselves and gospel groups from other churches.
Lastweek, they were preparing a new song by Clavan White, a family member, in honor of Johnson Glenn, the chorus's founder and namesake who died last August.
Guitarist Mike Cager strummed the first chord.
"Got it?" he asked. "I'm, I'm, I'm," he sang, his voice dropped through the pitches the tenors, baritones and basses were to start on, then his hands flew into action on the strings.
Leonard Glenn, the founder's son, took the microphone. He sang the first words of each phrase in a gruff tenor and the others answered with the entire phrase,their voices filling the large multipurpose room.
"I remember . .."
"I remember what my daddy said."
"Just before . . ."
"Just before he passed away."
"Keep on runnin' . . ."
"Keep on runnin' on this Christian journey."
"And I'll see you . . ."
"And I'll see you again one day."
Of course, when Glenn's father founded the group back in 1952, there were no electronics and only three other singers. It was a special group that got together just to sing for the church's Men's Day at the end of February.
But when that service was over, they stayed together to sing at the church and began recruiting new members. The numbers have grown over the years, until now the chorus has 22 members, including Oriey Glenn, Leonard's cousinand one of the original four, and Matthews Glenn, Leonard's son.
"When my father became sick and couldn't sing any more, he asked me to continue on," Leonard recalled. "That was my promise to him. I'm going to go on as long as I can."
Early on, they practiced in their homes. They began buying matching suits for performances and set up atreasury. Before long, they took the show on the road, singing in churches as near as Davidsonville or as far away as Philadelphia.
Some of the older men brought their sons into the chorus as they grew up. Others remember listening to the chorus, but fell away from the church as teen-agers. When they came back, they came to sing.
GeraldCager, 43, heard the chorus "when I was a little teeny boy." But after 12 years in the Air Force, he figured he was "a man of the world" who had no need for the church or its music.
But a cousin talked him into joining the chorus a couple of years ago, and the chorus "gave me a purpose," he said.
"The older men kept me out of trouble. The men gave me stability, and I needed that," he explained.
Now, he is deeply involved in the church and enrolling in layman Bible study classes. And his story is echoed by many of younger men.
"There were no questions asked, no funny looks," recalled cousin Donald Cager, 42, who said he spent most of his time drinking, doing drugs and chasing women until he joined the chorus five years ago.
His fatherwas part of the group, he explained. "When you're a little boy, you want to do what your daddy does. Now, I'm doing that."
There was atime when he would have nothing to do with the church.
"The Lord was still in my life, but only when I needed him to be," Donald said."But since I've left alcohol and drugs, I've gotten to know Him better."
And the graying men who have been singing the songs since before their sons were even born have been "the strength for all of us,"he concluded. "They've been the strength."