How Sweet the Sound

The Kingsmen of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church perform in the massive Fort Washington sanctuary.
The Kingsmen of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church perform in the massive Fort Washington sanctuary. (Jay Paul - For The Washington Post)

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By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006

It is 7:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday, and hundreds of worshipers are rushing into Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in Glenn Dale, where members of the church's mass choir are already standing and singing in a choir loft the size of a basketball court.

"Come! Now is the time to worship him! Come! Now is the time to worship!"

The choir, 150 voices strong, fills the room with the sound of its demanding call to faith. This is no halfhearted Sunday morning singalong. This is a gospel choir that means business, and everyone in the church is paying attention.

Standing in front of the singers wearing a microphone headset is Myrna Summers, an award-winning recording artist who has exchanged a life performing on the road to be the minister of music for one of the Washington area's largest congregations. Summers knows how to stir a Sunday morning crowd. Well before the preacher has uttered his first word, the congregation has been run through a soulful wringer, the impact of the music connecting on levels both spiritual and physical.

Similar scenes take place regularly in dozens of area churches. Washington is a stronghold of black gospel music, and you can hear it everywhere from large sanctuaries to tiny storefronts. Performing songs ranging from "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" to such soul-stirring tunes as "Rough Side of the Mountain," area choirs take worshipers on a musical, faith-filled journey and connect with listeners searching for solace and succor.

For Barbara Holt of Beltsville, the music "uplifts my soul." Holt, a member of First Baptist Church of Glenarden, says her choir "really helps me to enter in the presence of God."

Singing gospel music is not easy, says Summers, who puts her choir through long hours of preparation for a single service. And, she reminds you, "these are not professionals. They are volunteers."

Gospel singer Byron Cage is another national recording artist who leads a choir in the area. Even though he lives in Atlanta, he finds time to serve as the senior minister of church worship and music administration at Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington. Cage believes that a choir director is more than a person in charge of a group of people who can sing.

"The director must know how to make the choir members respond," he says. "The choir members must have a sense of trust and a feeling that here is somebody who will bring out the best in us."

Cage is passionate about gospel music and directing his singers. And he understands that as important as the choir is, it needs to remember its complementary role to the sermon and service. "We may be entertainers," he says, "but on Sunday morning my job is to create the right environment that will make preaching easy."

* * *

There are dozens of outstanding gospel choirs in the Washington area. Here are five of the better-known ones.


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