Gospel choir packs Carroll church's pews Gospel: The Gospel Jubileers have been invited to Austria for the 14th Vienna Advent Concert during the four weekends before Christmas.

July 13, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The congregation stared silently at the entrance to Union Street Methodist Church until the doors burst open on a loud and joyful noise.

One by one, the Gospel Jubileers entered singing "Praise the Lord," a rousing hymn, part prayer and part drama, that brought the faithful at the small black church in Westminster to their feet.

"The choir is dedicated to singing, and the congregation is dedicated to following," said Erkwood E. Chase, a member of Union Street for 50 years.

The singers repeated the refrain -- each time a little louder but with a constant reverence. They had set the tone for the service, previewing the thundering hymns spaced throughout.

"If you are not moved, something is wrong," said Hyland Wars, a choir member. "Check yourself."

The Rev. Jackie Collins says it is the choir that packs the pews at the 130-year-old church, one of Carroll County's oldest black congregations. On any Sunday, a handful of white families join in for a spiritual lift, the pastor said.

Ann Hull heard the first notes of the beginning hymn, shook her husband's arm and joined the singing and swaying. The hymn was familiar, she said, but the lively rendition was not. The couple were visiting from Westminster United Methodist and wondering how to capture the same passion for their congregation.

"We need so much from them," said Hull. "The choir just makes you say, 'I want to go there.' I see the truth in that church."

At Collins' urging, the Jubileers have shared their sounds with other churches and at Western Maryland College. In December, they will sing for an international audience, many unfamiliar with American gospel music.

Austrian Cultural Affairs has invited the Jubileers to the 14th Vienna Advent Concert, a festival that draws about 40 groups during the four weekends before Christmas.

The Gospel Jubileers are planning their trip to Vienna without questioning how their voices reached the ears of the series organizers or how they will finance the $1,400-per-member cost.

And the director worries little about what and how the choir will sing. After directing them for three years, Eric B. Byrd knows "we have all the wheels in motion to blow this gig."

At a recent rehearsal, he taught "Jesus is My Rock" and promised the 20 singers, "We can get down on that song and blow some Austrian minds."

The Jubileers practice every Wednesday, running through familiar favorites and new songs Byrd throws at them. Drop-ins join in. Rehearsing is a tonic, the singers say.

"The music lifts me up for the week," said Sharon Toliver. "Even in the down times, I find myself singing."

For Yvonne Cooper, gospel music is an escape.

"It gets us away from out there," she said pointing to the door of the clapboard church. "It gives us peace and hopefully reaches ears out there."

Like Cooper and Toliver, many in the choir have been singing together since their student days at Robert Moton, at one time the county's only high school for blacks.

At rehearsal, Byrd, a jazz pianist, plays, taps out the rhythm with his foot and sings a few bars. The singers repeat each verse after him. They picked up the pulsating "Jesus Is My Rock" in less than an hour, easily harmonizing and out-singing the same song blasting from a stereo.

Like most teachers of gospel music, Byrd has found little printed in the genre. He usually chooses a song from a recording and writes out the music in parts for the choir.

Most Jubileers have no formal musical training, but they are blessed with ability, said Byrd. They rely on modern props, but the choir is learning gospel in much the same way as their ancestors, who originated the spirituals in the days before the Civil War.

"Union Street sings, with tremendous conviction and credibility, music rooted in the slave experience," Byrd said. "They are unique and so understanding musically and harmonically of the gospel tradition."

The tradition dates to the era of slave labor, when one strong voice would lead a song, repeating each line until others caught on. Often, the slaves coded messages into the music. The

stories of oppression, flights to freedom and struggles for justice spawned hymns integral to services today.

Just before the 11 a.m. service, the singers are humming softly and donning royal blue robes in the choir room. They form a prayer circle, with their hands clasped together.

"May the words we sing reverberate in the hearts and minds of all who hear," they say, but the prayer quickly turns into a soft harmony.

Pub Date: 7/13/96

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