When the Baltimore-based Tabernacle gospel choir performed at the Montelban Jazz Festival in France last month, the most touching tribute to their artistry came not from the ovation of the standing-room-only crowd of 3,600, but from an intense young man who followed them backstage after the concert.
"This fellow had been an attendant at the hotel where we were staying, and he was fascinated by our music," recalls James Moran, a federal worker and member of Jones Tabernacle Baptist Church in Baltimore who sings tenor with the group.
"We were all sitting down, and he came over and got down on his knees in front of us with tears in his eyes. He said: 'I have no religion in my life, I have nothing in my life that makes me feel as good as you seem to feel. I want what you have in my life.' "
The young man's enthusiasm was typical of the reaction of audiences across Europe, who only in the last decade have discovered African-American gospel music. At major European music festivals this summer, gospel has begun to rival jazz, rock and blues as one of America's most important cultural exports.
"They treated us like we were celebrities," says Betty Hickey, a soprano who was making her first trip abroad with the choir. "They considered us artists."
Yet Tabernacle, which one European music journal has called "the best gospel group in the world," is almost unknown in the United States, even in its hometown of Baltimore.
This afternoon, the group will give a concert to celebrate its return at Jones Tabernacle Baptist Church in West Baltimore at 4 p.m.
"We've gotten terrific reviews in France and Spain, but so far hardly anyone in the United States has heard about us," says Jerome Van Jones, the choir's music director and co-founder.
"I guess, like many American performers, we've had to go abroad and be recognized in Europe before people at home start paying attention."
Jerome Jones and his sister, the Rev. Cynthia Jones, formed the Tabernacle choir last year after a French music promoter invited Jerome, a musician who now lives in Geneva, Switzerland, to suggest a gospel group to tour European jazz festivals.
"I told him I knew a group of singers at my family's church in Baltimore who were of professional caliber musically and who also could convey the religious experience of the church," Jerome recalls.
He and his sister, who is also the choir director at Jones Tabernacle Baptist Church, hand-picked the 17 voices and five instrumentalists for the touring group. The group traveled to France and Spain last summer, where they were well-received everywhere they performed.
This year, their first performance was in the Montelban festival amphitheater, to an overflow crowd of 3,600. The next day, the choir traveled to the nearby Abbey de Mosaic, one of the oldest cathedrals in France, where they had been invited to participate in the Sunday morning Mass.
"The place was full of history and tradition," Moran recalls. "It had no musical instruments -- piano, organ, drums -- at all, just these beautiful vaulted ceilings and the congregation. So everything we did was unaccompanied. We did 'King Jesus Is A Listenin',' 'Amazing Grace' and 'O Happy Day,' all a capella.
"Then they invited us to take Communion with them. For them and for us, Communion signified Christ's death and resurrection. Catholics and Baptists share that. So I think them asking us to take Communion was an expression of their reaching out to us and us sort of reaching them as well. It was a communion of cultures, if you will."
Most of the singers are members of the congregation at Jones Tabernacle; a few belong to other area churches. None except Jerome Jones and organist Ernest Sallee, who is music director at another area church, consider themselves professional musicians.
At a concert last year, Jerome Jones introduced the choir's rendition of "The Lord Is Everything to Me" on a revealing note of humility.
"We're no saints; we're no angels," Jones shouted to the crowd. "We're here for one reason: God said it; God wrote it; I believe it, and I'm going to take him at his word."
Caught up in the rapture
The Tabernacle singers don't think of what they do as entertainment. Each of them has made a personal commitment to spreading the belief in individual salvation and redemption that is at the core of the Christian faith.
"For us, it is our ministry," says Hickey, who works as a program analyst for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington.
"We are actually ministering through song, through music. It is an opportunity to share the gospel with people who don't speak our language but can understand our spirit and our love for God."
To underscore the deeply religious purpose of each performance, the choir assembles in a circle with hands intertwined before its concerts to invoke the Lord's blessing.