Cynthia Girtley, 27, grew up dreaming of being an opera star like Leontyne Price.

But two years ago, family life in her native New Orleans went sour. "I said, 'I've got to turn my life around, and the only one who can turn it around is God.' I just turned myself over to Him, and let God use me as his instrument."

She moved to Washington with her children, found a job as a clerk-typist at the Department of Agriculture and joined Mount Zion Baptist Church in the District. She became the church's music director and, instead of opera, started singing gospel.

Yesterday, Girtley was one of 10 soloists and groups who sang at the Kentucky Fried Chicken Gospel Music Competition held at the Kennedy Center. The competition represented the culmination of a month-long series of preliminary gospel sing-offs held at churches in Baltimore and Washington, a leading market for gospel music.

"As I came in this place, honestly, tears came from my eyes," she said, several hours before the performance. "I said, 'Is this real? Me?' Even if I don't win tonight, it will be an honor just to sing for God."

At home, she sings whenever she needs to relax, or when the spirit moves her.

Eventually, she said, she'd like to make records and sing gospel worldwide.

"When I sing," she said, "it's not so much the beauty of my voice that's important. I'd like for people to look beyond me, and see the Jesus Christ that's in my voice. It's the sincerity of the heart."

Girtley said only a few of her coworkers know she sings, but that her boss said he would root for her.

Also singing last night was Denise Hall, 22, a junior majoring in computer science at the University of Maryland. She was one of seven members of Great Change, an ensemble sponsored by the Holy Truth Church in the District.

Hall said she can't remember a time when she didn't sing. Her parents sang. Her twin sister sings. "It's something that I can do that I don't even have to think about," she said.

"I can spread God's message to young and old," she added. "I can sing when I'm down, when I'm depressed. I can go to rehearsals and let it all out, and I always feel much better.

"The message in gospel that we're trying to portray is that Jesus Christ is the way. Because any of us could have sung rhythm and blues, but there's not an answer in that," she added.

Alvin Williams, 24, a computer operator at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, is director of Hall's group. "Music is pretty much my life," he said. "And, God, He's my inspiration. We try to keep Christ first."

Isaiah Lurry, a private music teacher with a graduate music degree from American University, was sponsored in the men's solo contest by the Saint Paul's Lutheran Church in the District.

He said his mother is a pastor at the Macedonia Pentecostal Church in the District, and that he sang with his sisters when small in a family group known as the Lurry Singers. "I sing all the time," he said. "Everywhere."

Competing against Lurry last night was Timothy Solomon Lee, a 19-year-old bank clerk from Baltimore. Lee said he started singing when he was 6, with a church group called the "Coleman Specials."

"It's something I feel," he said. "This is the direction the Lord is leading me in . . . . My singing is basically instantaneous. It can occur at a bus stop, or when I'm at home, cleaning. Basically, whenever I get an inspiration."

Like the others, he wasn't nervous, and said he did not care particularly whether he won. "No," he said. "I feel warm. I feel like there's a love . . . a real love of Jesus."