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How Sweet the Sound
Five Area Gospel Choirs That Hit All the Right Notes

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.

Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church

Choir size: Six choirs, including the 200-voice Kingsmen choir.

The scene: The cavernous 3,000-seat sanctuary comes alive when the Kingsmen perform.

Musical leaders : Choir director Byron Cage is known as the "Prince of Praise" for his unique brand of high-octane praise music. Although he lives in Atlanta, he can be found at Ebenezer every week directing the chorus in Fort Washington.

Quotable: "What is special about the Kingsmen is that they are men who are all committed to the purpose of glorifying God in music," Cage says. "We are doing more than singing. We are a band of brothers. We are our brothers' keepers."

Choir kudos: With five Stellar Awards, a Soul Train Award and a Trumpet Award, Cage could easily focus entirely on recording. Instead, he remains involved with live performances at Ebenezer.

When to hear them: The Kingsmen perform at least two Sundays out of the month, depending on Cage's schedule. Their next performance is today at 11:15 a.m.

7707 Allentown Rd., Fort Washington. 301-248-8833. http://www.ebenezerame.org./

First Baptist Church of Glenarden

Choir size: Six choirs, including the 350- to 400-voice mass choir.

The scene: The church, formerly a Hechinger's, has a main sanctuary and seven overflow rooms. With people dispersed all over the building, the choir music is a connecting force.

Musical leaders: Shirley M.K. Berkeley, minister of music emeritus, and Stephen Hurd, minister of music, can be found at all five services.

Quotable: "No matter what genre of gospel music we create, God is in the middle," Hurd says. "It can be our kids' choir. It can be our fellowship choral. The sound of God's voice echoes through our music."

Choir kudos: Berkeley and Hurd are nationally known gospel figures, and Hurd has his fourth album, "My Destiny" (Integrity), coming out Tuesday.

When to hear them: The choirs take turns singing at the church, which has five services on Sunday at 7 a.m., 8:45 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

3600 Brightseat Rd., Landover. 301-773-3600. http://www.fbcglenarden.org/ .

Metropolitan Baptist Church

Choir size: Four adult choirs, including a 250-voice mass choir.

The scene: The very traditional church building has long been a magnet for gospel music, ranging from great hymns to contemporary and hip-hop gospel that must pass muster with the Rev. H. Beecher Hicks Jr., the church's pastor, who is also a powerful baritone.

Musical leaders: Recording artist Nolan Williams Jr., minister of music, directs the dynamic voices of the choirs. Grammy and Stellar Award winner Richard Smallwood is the artist-in-residence of the congregation.

Quotable: "There is a rich tradition and great heritage of music at Metropolitan," Williams says. "We work hard to maintain this heritage. Many black churches have moved more heavily toward praise and worship, but we have not abandoned the hymns and spirituals."

Choir kudos: The choirs, nicknamed "Tri-M" (which stands for Metropolitan Music Ministry) have been the church's ambassador in the community. In recent years, they have performed at the Kennedy Center, Warner Theatre and for the Smithsonian Institution. The choir will perform Handel's "Messiah" for the 60th consecutive year in December.

When to hear them: The church's adult choirs rotate singing every Sunday at 7:45 a.m. and 11 a.m., with two choirs singing during each service.

1225 R St. NW. 202-238-5000. http://www.metropolitanbaptist.org/

New Samaritan Baptist Church

Choir size: Eight choirs, including a 103-voice mass choir.

The scene: The 1,240 seats at this Northeast Washington church fill up quickly on Sunday morning as people flock to hear one of the hottest choirs in the area.

Musical leaders: The church's high-voltage music ministry is headed up by local gospel recording artist Isaiah Thomas. Thomas and Carla Bowens are co-directors of the music and arts department.

Quotable: "The music that we sing is an extension of our lives," Thomas says.

Choir kudos: In the past three years, Bishop Michael V. Kelsey and members of the choir have released two albums, "I'll Sing to You" and "Masterpeace." The mass choir was nominated for gospel music's highest honor, the Stellar Award, last year.

When to hear them: The mass choir performs on the first Sunday of each month during the 7:45 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. services.

1100 Florida Ave. NE. 202-397-1870. http://www.newsamaritan.org/ .

Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church

Choir size: Six choirs, with a nearly 150-voice mass choir.

The scene: Reid Temple has nearly 8,000 members who gather weekly in a church that has one of the largest sanctuaries in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Musical leaders: Minister of music Myrna Summers has combined her deep Pentecostal roots with close to 40 years of professional singing experience to mold untrained voices into something special.

Quotable: "I try to present God's word in music," Summers says. "Our mission statement is taken from Romans 12:1, 'I beseech you therefore, brethren, that ye present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God.' "

Choir kudos: The mass choir also supports the church's theater arts ministry, which puts on productions through the year.

When to hear them: The choir performs the first Sunday of each month at 7:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. On one Sunday each month, the choir also sings at the church's north location at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

11400 Glenn Dale Blvd., Glenn Dale. 301-352-0320. http://www.reidtemple.org./

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