The hallways and wards of Howard University Hospital rang with the sounds of "Silent Night," "We Three Kings" and other familiar Christmas carols as members of a gospel chorus entertained patients and staff in a strolling afternoon concert Saturday.
The singers were members of Sounds for Christ, a 35-member a capella group made up of persons aged 8 to 62. Their mission of trying to brighten the lives of others through song is a year-round effort, but one that takes on special significance during the holiday season.
"We go to convalescent homes a lot," said Jeffrey Heath, director and founder of the group. "We sing for people who are confined to their homes, also. But the main purpose of this group is to spread God's word to the people and to help them come to Christ."
Sounds for Christ is sponsored jointly by the Thirteenth and Irving Street Church of Christ, at 13th and Irving Streets NW, and the East Capitol Street Church of Christ, at 5026 East Capitol St.
Last week, the group members took their caroling ministry to three area hospitals and D.C. Village, a city-run home for the elderly in Southwest Washington.
"Christmas alone is depressing enough without being confined to a hospital bed," said Carlton Davis, business manager for the group. "You kind of lose the spirit of Christmas, being confined in an institution, inside concrete walls and away from everything. We try to bring some joy to patients, so that even though they are isolated from people, they aren't isolated from the spirit of Christmas."
From her hospital bed at Howard, a smiling Iva Brevard enthusiastically affirmed Davis' assessment. "It's just really strengthening to be lying in the hospital and get such a spiritual lift after all the changes I've been through," she said. "They couldn't have done anything better than to come to the hospital to cheer us up. I thank God for this."
Originally an eight-member group, Sounds for Christ is the offspring of a larger chorus that disbanded five years ago, Heath said. It is largely a family affair.
The current group began with three male singers, Heath and two brothers, Charles and Melvin Shannon. They were joined a year later by Heath's two sisters, Nadine Horne and Joanne Battle. A third sister, Renita Heath, is an alternate singer. Melvin Shannon's wife, Pamela, and Joanne Battle's brother, Tony Battle, were among the original eight members, as was Davis.
Heath selects the music for the group, with Charles Shannon's help, and because he has no formal training, relies on his natural ear for music.
"When I listen to music, I try to pick out the instrument that goes with a certain voice," Heath said. For instance, when I hear a violin, I think of a first or second soprano; the viola--alto; a trumpet--tenor, and so on."
Their unaccompanied voices have a surprisingly sophisticated sound. Heath said people who hear performances by Sounds for Christ on tape often imagine they are hearing musical instruments in the background.
"Singing a capella makes it a little harder because the singers are doing double duty," Heath said. "They have to sing their parts plus compensate for the absence of an instrument. Each singer must use their voices to bring out the part normally filled by the instrument."
Unlike many gospel and other singing groups, Sounds for Christ singers accept no gratuities for their performances. Their talent, they say, is a gift they want to share with others.
"If you could only see the faces of the people we sing to, then you would understand," explained Nadine Horne. "When someone is real down-and-out and you leave them with a true spiritual high--Jesus Christ--then you know. . . Christ is with us. We feel His presence when we sing."