Singing For Sandtown


February 06, 2005|By Emeri B. O'Brien | Emeri B. O'Brien,Sun Staff

Outsiders may say there is no reason to sing God's praises in Sandtown. The place that in its heyday was known as the Harlem of Baltimore and the home of Billie Holiday is singing the blues of drugs, crime and unemployment.

But for the past 12 years, hope has lived in Sandtown through the voices of children in a gospel choir named after their neighborhood. "We are a bunch of kids," says Sade Douglas, 14. "We can praise God instead of being on the streets."

Sandtown choir's 55 members face a struggle daily to stay on the right path. But, with God in their lives, they are focused on the straight and narrow.

The brainchild of Steve Smallman, the choir started out as a sing-along effort in the West Baltimore neighborhood. Now an outreach of the New Song Arts program of New Song Urban Ministries, it has taken the ministry out of the church, into the streets and across the country.

Alvin Richardson, the choir director, says the only requirements of members is that they be from Sandtown and in grades three through eight.

"Our focus is on young people and arts and teaching them life skills through music and arts," Richardson says. "What they do isn't your typical gospel. The kind of stuff that we're doing is not what you are going to hear in church. But that's with purpose."

The hip-hop-inspired music has been like the Pied Piper, leading the children off the streets and into the church.

The music lured Sharandall Moses. Sharandall, 13, was featured in Sandtown's first DVD, ....this is Sandtown. He joined the choir in 2002.

"When I got in the choir, I started going a lot of places and doing better things with my life," Sharandall says. "And, it started making me happy making the audience happy and God happy from what I'm doing."

He raps proudly that "he's always been a survivor" on "Destiny," a track on the group's first CD album, based on a true story Sandtown.

Sharandall gets a rush from being on stage. He and his choir-mates have performed all over the country.

Their biggest crowd was 80,000 at a Billy Graham crusade in Kansas City, Mo.

What started out as a community's effort to reclaim itself by adapting the "It takes a village" approach has turned into a lifeline for Sandtown's future.

"There are kids in this neighborhood who are just looking for a place to express themselves to be who they are," Richardson says. "Being a part of this program kind of changes their world view a bit."

Merrell Johnson, 18, was one of the first members of Sandtown. When Johnson joined, the choir was an after-school program.

"Being in the choir puts me around different things," says Johnson, 18, who attends Covenant College in Georgia. "Seeing outside of Sandtown, it makes you want more than what's here."

Knowing that they are reaching people through their music makes members of the choir feel proud.

"It's a blessing," Sade says. "It will give [listeners] a chance to know God will love you no matter what. God is always by your side."

The choir is working on its second album with Gotee Records.

The group's first national recording didn't have much commercial success, but its impact can't be measured in units sold.

"The music draws [listeners] in," Richardson says. "It's our hope that the religious principles in the song stick. We've already got them with the music. Time will tell if we got them with the message."

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