Sister Rosanne Smith, a nursing assistant, sat rocking slowly in the pew, jammed in with the others, occassionally clapping her hands and smiling as she listened to the gospel music that filled the Scripture Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
She, like the others in the standing-room-only crowd of day laborers and midnight janitors, secretaries and lawyers, had come to hear the familiar soothing gospel singing of Mattie Johnson and the Stars of Faith singers and "leave my burdens, my problems, with the Lord."
Mattie Johnson was clutching a microphone on one hand, a white handkerchief in the other. "I want to sing a song that brings back home, way back to South Carolina and North Carolina, a song that you may remember your mother or your grandmother singing," she said as the Stars of Faith singers gathered behind her, dressed in matching flamingo-pink gowns trimmed with sequins.
"They used to sing this song in churches where the only instruments they had were their feet, stomping out the rhythm on the floor," she said, building momentum, linking past with present.
Black-haired girls, their freshly pressed curls glistening with spice-scented pomade, sat next to their mothers and grandmothers, everyone looking their Sunday best. Some, rocking gently in the pews, fanned the hot, dry, earthy air with church programs. A grandmother in a white dress and hat nodded and smiled as Johnson reminisced about the country church services. Others in the audiences said, "Amen."
Then, as their anticipation reached a fever pitch, Johnson began to sing.
"Through many dangers, toils and snares/I have already come/I know now that it was grace/that brought me safe this far/and grace will lead me on." Her words, "dangers, toils and snares" triggered instant memories, each different, yet somehow all the same. "All I have to do/is ask the Lord to give me/a little more time to pray," she sang.
When gospel music is sung, and many say Johnson is one of the best at singing it, it is not just another musical performance. Gospel is a traditional rooted deep in the experience of the nation's blacks. It is, Johnson says, a form of communication, a way of sharing the common worries, fears, emotional reactions to hard times and misfortune. But it is also a message of hope and deliverance.
Johnson and the Stars of Faith are among those responsible for the dramatic increase in the popularity of gospel music here in Washington. Record stores that cater to mostly black clientele now stock a large selection of gospel music. There are two fulltime gospel radio stations in the city, and their telephone lines are frequently jammed by men and women, those who suffer one-hour-plus rides to domestic jobs or work as harried civil servants, calling in their music requests.
"Gospel music has exploded," said Vashti McKenzie, program director for the gospel radio station WYCB.
"The Reason is that contemporary gospel music has taken on a new dimension, thanks to improved writing and producing by groups such as the Hawkins Family, who did Oh Happy Day," Andrew Crouch and the Rev. James Cleveland.
"Last year, a gospel music workshop at the Shoreham Americana and the Sheraton Park plaza drew more than 100 gospel groups and 10,000 people from all over," McKenzie said.
Known for her earthy, forceful, brassy voice, Washington resident Mattie Johnson, 34, and her group of five female vocalists and three musicians have transported one or more of their 20 elaborate gowns and the band's instruments in cars, vans and on trains to perform around the country in one-room storefront churches, cathedrals and even Madison Square Garden.
Drawing its members from all parts of Washington, the Stars of Faith are southern transplants like most of black Washington, immigrants who packed meager belongings into trucks and cars and journeyed here looking for the Promised Land.
A large woman, Johnson is a former cab radio dispatcher, former cafeteria worker and now a nursing aide. She founded the group with her mother, Martha Taylor, and sister Frances Taylor 12 years ago. "Mom," as Martha Taylor, 59, is called by the group, recently retired after 35 years as a laundress at Yale laundry. The family came from the farmlands of Aiken, S.C.
The other members of the group are Debra Gambill, widowed mother of two from Galax, Va. and a C & P Telephone Co. engineering clerk; Linda Tyson, a Newport News, Va., and a 1966 Dunbar High graduate who works in a local Head Start program, and Betty Clement, a Richmond native and mother of two who manages a Northeast Washington garden apartment building.
The group, which earns little money but has hopes of making it professionally, has sung at banquets, at fashion shows, funerals, at the French Underground disco here, and around a piano in the Amtrak train lounge on the way to Miami. On March 31, Mattie Johnson and the Stars of Faith will sing with Al Green, a soul singer turned gospel singer, at Constitution Hall.
"Traveling the gospel circuit is pretty rough, even if you're doing it part time like we are, because we have to worry about taking care of children and families," Johnson said. "But one day, we're going to make it." c
At services inside the Scripture Church, located at Ninth and O streets NW, Mattie Johnson, her eyes closed, was singing, "Somebody's burdened, Lord," while the background singers chorused in response, "Come by here."
"Now is the needed time, Lord," Mattie sang, and the background belted out "Come by here. Oh, Lord, come by here."
Cornelia Cunningham, grandmother of 10, sat holding someone else's baby in her arms. She patted the child's feet and hummed along, holding her head, remembering the serious illnesses in her family, and "thinking about Jesus. He's the problem solver."
Intently, carefully, leaning first to one side and then to the other with all the body English they could muster, the vocalists harmonized and urged Johnson on.
Johnson, her matching flamingo-pink shoes now off her feet, paced up and down the aisles singing, "somebody neeeds you, Lord." Men and women were standing, some crying, others urging her on, higher, higher, louder, louder. She was in control, singing:
"Whoa, Lord, come by here."
"Gospel music is a way of communicating among black people," said J. Weldon Norris, professor of music at Howard University. "Historically, when the slaves were singing the old spirituals, if you look at the text of the music they were communicating not with God, but using God as a vehicle for communication.
"In many instances, spirituals were codes," Norris said. "Like the song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd, the gourd being the Big Dipper that directed the escape route north. Or the song, 'Steal away to Jesus, I ain't got long to stay here,' another example. The slave masters thought they were purely religious songs. But they were songs of communication, and escape." t"Texts of spirituals still have significance for blacks," Norris said. "We are still under social and political pressures. Look at the slavery code within spirituals. Now, it's just a different plateau, it's just in another disguise."
Mattie Johnson says churches and gospel singing provide avenues to vent worry, frustration, to escape the tension of everyday life.
"When you look into the audience, you know that somebody is out there with marital problems, with children who are sick, some with money problems and can't pay the rent or put food on the table," she said. "There are those who are having problems on the job, some with children in trouble with the law."
"Things are so bad sometimes that all you can do is scream the name of Jesus," Johnson said. "Sometimes that's the relief you need."
Historically, southern black churches provided the social, as well as religious, foundation within the black community. After all, a full week's work, the all-day Sunday service was the community's only day for a social gathering. Friends separated by miles of farmland would come to spread blankets under shade trees.
They would share box or basket lunches of fried chicken and sweet potato pies, eating while the minister delivered his oration and the choir entertained in song.
Mom Taylor, 59, remembers those times. Songs the group sings today were snug by workers in the fields many years ago.
"I worked in the fields chopping cotton all day and when I finished, I had to come home to feed my family, wash the little clothes we had for the next day," Mom Taylor said, shaking her head slowly from side to side. "Those were hard times. We only had school from October to March because all the other times everybody was needed on the farm.
"You had to go a term and a half just to make one grade," she said. "One day, I put down that old cotton bag and I turned to my husband and said I had to have something better than this.'"
Taylor said she left the family with her mother and moved to Washington, taking a laundry job, washing and pressing other people's clothes, saving $10 to $12 a week to bring her family here. Three years later they moved to Washington and have been here ever since.
Johnson, mindful of her mother's struggles to improve life for the family as well as her father's contributions, says that nonetheless there are special problems that black women have that men sometimes do not understand.
"They go through the daily problems wth their families: husbands may not be home during most of the day or they may not be there at all. Women have to deal with problems of paying rent, of environment their children grow up in and survival.
At the Scripture Church, long before the Stars of Faith performed, Johnson sat quietly among the congregation, sensing, attempting to feel the mood to determine "what kind of song they needed to hear."
"These people had been at the service all day long," Johnson said later. "They were tired, they needed something peppy, something uplifting. I felt troubles, I felt a little turbulence. They needed something to soothe them, to smooth them, somethig to think on to forget the troubles."
When the Stars of Faith finally appeared, pushing their way through the crowd wedged in the church foyer, they were met with thunderous applause.
Piano player Charles Beckworth, a Capitol Hill Hospital pharmacy technician, smiled as he sat on the bench, stretching his fingers ready to play. He cannot read music: for years he has played "by ear." About the same time, Herbert Odom, a largely self-taught bass guitar player, also from Johnson's hometown in South Carolina, adjusted the controls on the amplifier while Vernora Tyler, drummer and the daughter of the owner of a local weaving company, gently tapped her drums.
Then Beckworth struck the opening chords. Mattie Johnson's gospel train to glory was ready to roll.