My tears started when the choir began to sing “O Happy Day.” Memories flooded back. Watching the PBS documentary on music of the black church filled me with such pleasure as it transported me on a journey through my life with this wonderful music.
My love affair with African American gospel music hails back to Sunday mornings in my 1940s childhood. After breakfast, our family of five — mother, father, older sister and brother, and I prepared for church as we listened to “Wings Over Jordan” on the radio and hummed along as we dressed.
This popular program made broadcast history in the 1930s and ’40s as the first independently produced national and international radio program created by African Americans. The Rev. Glenn T. Settle founded its excellent choir in 1935. He believed in using African American spirituals to spread Christianity and created the radio program to introduce the white world to the black experience. In 1937, the choir sang weekly on the “Negro Hour” over radio station WGAR, a CBS affiliate. It soon became a hit. Our family loved listening to it and silenced our chatter when it came on so we could hear every rich chord.
Later, in my teens, I discovered a local live radio broadcast of Sunday evening services at First Apostolic Faith Church, an African American congregation in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood. Its music seduced me and insisted that I find a way to hear more. On a humid summer Sunday evening, I persuaded two friends to accompany me as we made our way to the church on South Caroline Street and timidly entered its sanctuary through the back door.
Heads turned. We were the only whites in a sea of smiling black faces. The preacher welcomed us heartily and invited us to sit down front, the better to hear him and the choir. I will never forget that evening. We instantly felt the love that transcends all differences, including skin color. We bathed in the joyful service and its glorious music.
Years later, in 1995, I joined a group from my mostly white church congregation to respond to an invitation to sing in a Christmas service at a church with an African American congregation and choir. Biracial friendships instantly sprang from this experience, and singers of both races realized that we were on to something special and important. This was the birth of the multiracial gospel choir, United Voices of Praise.
This choir’s ministry of mutual love and music has taken it on international tours to Germany, including Cologne, Bonn, Bad Kreuznach, and Berlin, and also to Paris and southeastern England. Its performances have packed church sanctuaries and public auditoriums with standing-room only crowds.
These visits also have spawned several new choirs in Germany, singing black gospel music.
Yes, this music is contagious. Feet can’t resist moving, hands clap spontaneously, and the heart soars. Last night, watching and hearing that wonderful choir on television, I was drawn to my feet, swaying and clapping along with the singers.
When it had ended, I recalled those Sunday mornings of my childhood with “Wings Over Jordan.” And the tears of gratitude returned.