As the choir at Washington's Metropolitan Baptist Church readied their voices and surroundings yesterday for one of the biggest days of their year, Wilma Mishea Tilson couldn't help but remember one of the worst days of her life -- and what happened next.
Her brother was riding a motorcycle during the shooting of a stunt video when he slammed into a fire hydrant, puncturing his chest and losing a kidney and part of his liver. A physician's assistant told Tilson her brother probably wouldn't survive.
She called the choir for help. They prayed. Her brother lived. And today, as the church singers perform Handel's "Messiah" and a gospel take on the same theme, hallelujah has become more than an abstract idea for Tilson, a tenor in the choir and a policy analyst at the Department of Health and Human Services.
"Every time I think of a song that speaks to my situation," she said, "I can't help but . . . jump up and shout."
Each December, Handel's work is performed dozens of times around the Washington area. For many music lovers, the classic 18th-century oratorio with the rousing "Hallelujah Chorus" is a holiday staple. For many musicians, among them viola player Phyllis Fleming, making the rounds of performances is a hurried dash till Christmas.
"You get to chasing yourself," said Fleming, who has three "Messiah" performances today. "The performances overlap, and you're running from one to the other, and between them you eat and try to keep your black clothes clean."
For those who polished their performance yesterday in Metropolitan Baptist's basement, riffs on the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus are anything but just another musical performance.
"My calling was to sing for God. Period. I don't do show tunes," said Kamaron Kellum-Cloman, a program manager at the Office of Personnel Management. "This is not a joke. You need to be called by God to stand up here."
A few years ago, Kellum-Cloman, whose deep speaking voice becomes a sweet soprano in song, overtaxed her vocal chords and was forced to rest for a year.
"It was a whisper . . . It was devastating not to sing," she said. But now she's back, singing in Metropolitan's "Messiah," a tradition at the church for more than 40 years.
She is also singing in the church's gospel-fused mix of song and preaching called "Celebrate the Messiah: Music and Musings from the Pulpit and the Choir Loft."
In that telling of the Messiah story, the Rev. Nolan Williams, the church's music director, has assembled a series of gospel anthems and spirituals, including the soaring "Born to Set Us Free" and "The Wonderful Counselor Medley," which Williams wrote for the choir. It is based, in part, on eight years of research on a compendium of gospel songs called the African American Heritage Hymnal.
The effort put on paper, in many cases for the first time, songs as they are actually sung in African American churches across the country, he said. Many hymnals include only traditional music, not the gospel versions that have been committed to memory in houses of worship nationwide.
As Williams listened to his choir practice -- Oh, oh, oh Jesus. Precious Jesus. You were born to set me free -- he said, "That's a beautiful sound."
The choir also will sing the Hallelujah from "Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration," a version of the baroque classic by producer Quincy Jones.
The church emphasizes both gospel and classical traditions of the "Messiah" because it reflects the diversity of its members, Williams said.
"You think about how many different ways you can celebrate the 'Messiah,' " Williams said. "You really can't come up with too many variations on that theme. You could spend a lifetime trying."
Willis Mitchell, a program analyst at the Department of Agriculture, said singing the soulful Hallelujah arrangement leaves him aglow.
"It lingers," he said. "It takes a lot out of you. It's almost like childbirth. You go through the pain of labor, but you have this babe at the end of that. There's a rush although you've labored. It takes a while to come down from the high of praising God."
Barbara E. Wilkinson, 63, a retired budget analyst at the Department of Labor, is a Handel fan. "There's something about the traditional that -- coming from the old era -- gets to your spirit," she said. "It's joyful. It really just inspires you."
But Handel's stirring work evokes melancholy for some who have been singing it for years.
Viola Lipscomb, who was taking decongestants and green tea in a last-minute bid to defeat her cold in time for today's performance, said the music makes her pensive. "Handel just rendered the birth, death and resurrection so very well, I'm just overwhelmed year after year after year. I don't like to be saddened by this, but a lot of people I used to sing with have died -- it's almost like a memorial."
Tilson said she believes the choir and the church saved her brother's life. "I know that was truly what brought him through." He's scarred, she said, but has returned to work as a music producer in New York. Singing is her way of returning that gift, she said.
"We always think Christmas is joyous. But there's that person who lost their mother on Christmas or doesn't have any money to buy their child a gift . . . or they're just alone," she said. "This may be an opportunity to reach someone who's on the verge of turning the other way."