A tight huddle of men and women softly stomp their white church shoes on the crimson carpet. They clap, they sway, they sing. They fill Hope Memorial St. Mark United Methodist Church in Edgewater with one of the oldest surviving forms of African American music.

Until recently, the sound of the Singing and Praying Bands had never been heard outside of the church. Exclusive to the Chesapeake Bay tidewater region, this network of singing groups once boasted thousands of members from hundreds of Methodist churches across Maryland and Delaware. But today, the number of singers has dwindled to just 55, putting a centuries-old tradition in danger of evaporating forever.

The a capella gospel of the Singing and Praying Bands can fill prayer meetings that last hours on end. Emotionally intense, bathed in ritual and seemingly timeless, it stands apart from other forms of gospel and spiritual music in black churches that were altered through contact with secular pop. And unlike the traditional prayer bands heard in other Southern black churches, the Singing and Praying Bands are a regional variation that practice their own detailed, distinct gathering.

Younger church members, however, don’t have the time or inclination to take it up. So with both caution and anticipation, the Singing and Praying Bands have accepted an invitation to appear at the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival in Baltimore on Saturday afternoon, hoping that taking their sacred tradition outside of the walls that protected it for more than 200 years will help it survive.

It wasn’t an easy decision. This isn’t just music. It’s their ministry. This isn’t entertainment. It’s their faith.

Edgewater, Maryland - June 3, 2012: Margaret Harris, enjoys a conversation with friends following a prayer service that included a singing and praying band at Hope St. Mark United Methodist Church in Edgewater, MD. (Joseph Victor Stefanchik/For The Washington Post)

“God is always doing a new and different thing, and that comes from the prophet Isaiah,” says the Rev. Jerry Colbert of John Wesley United Methodist Church of Annapolis. “Perhaps this is God’s way of moving us out of the box, outside of the familiar. We can always maintain our tradition and our purpose and our mission, but this may be what God wants us to do right now.”

A balancing act

When folklorist and ethnomusicologist Cliff Murphy invited the Singing and Praying Bands to the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring in December, it was the first time their music was heard outside a church. Maryland Traditions and the Maryland State Arts Council also presented them with one of their annual ALTA Awards celebrating achievement in living traditions and arts.

Maryland Traditions is “trying to assist communities in the passing-on of traditional knowledge,” Murphy says. “This is American music in one of its oldest and most distinct forms. Who’s going to take this up when these leaders pass on?”

Ethnomusicologists call the efforts of organizations such as Murphy’s an ethical tightrope walk of supporting fragile traditions by sharing them with the greater public. It’s delicate business. Intervention efforts in the 1960s helped rescue Louisiana Cajun music from extinction. But some say that intervention can change the actual nature of music, pointing to strands of gospel, bluegrass, the blues and other genres that have been professionalized, commercialized and taken far from their roots.

For the Singing and Praying Bands, there are some immediate advantages. The money they’ll receive for their festival appearance will help pay for the vans they use to travel to Sunday prayer meetings across the region. And their ministry itself is evangelical in nature. Public appearances could draw new members.

“It has not taken away from the ministry,” says Saundra Parker, 62, of Severna Park. “It doesn't matter if we’re on a stage. We’re still doing what the Lord wants us to do.”

Sharing a tradition

The first time the Singing and Praying Bands were approached by an outsider, it helped the community reconnect with its history. In 2007, folklorist Jonathan David published “Together Let Us Sweetly Live,” a book he began researching in 1983 after meeting the late Rev. Edward Johnson of Ezion United Methodist Church on Batts Neck on Kent Island. The community was suspicious of the tape recorder David was toting, but Johnson welcomed him. “ ‘Turn no one away,’ ” David says. “That was his approach to me.”

Colbert remembers encouraging his parishioners to adopt Johnson’s view. “The logic of this whole thing is that you’re praying for souls,” Colbert says. “So why don’t we pray and ask God, ‘What is the purpose of him being here?’ ”

A year went by. Five. Ten. David was eventually welcomed into an insular community whose practices can be traced back to secret prayer meetings held during the days of slavery. That need for secrecy seems to have lingered over the culture of the Singing and Praying Bands, which, until recently, had kept their ministry largely private.

Moved by the Spirit

At the Sunday afternoon prayer meeting in Edgewater, two dozen members clad in white uniforms gathered around a pew called “the mourner’s bench.” Men on one side, women on the other, they were led by captains from their individual churches who helped guide the pitch and tempo of the music, even though the members believe their singing is prompted entirely by the Holy Spirit.

First came the “give-out” hymns. A captain sang a line that was repeated by the group. This element of the meeting may date back to an era when songbooks and literacy weren’t commonplace in the church. The sound was somber. Bodies slowly swayed side to side.

“You come into these prayer meetings after a week of struggle in a world that does not affirm who you are,” David says. “The word Reverend Colbert uses is ‘broken.’ You can feel all of your brokenness and despair.”

Without any verbal cues, the tempo and pitch of the give-out hymns slowly began to rise, until it reached a peak, after which members kneeled at the mourner’s bench to pray for forgiveness. Then another captain started another give-out hymn, of which there are dozens to choose from. The pattern continued until the singers reached the final “straight” hymn, during which the members marched around the mourner’s bench repeating a refrain as an expression of joyful catharsis.

“You’re singing to the Lord, and leaving any burdens of spiritual bondage that you may be in,” Parker says. “You’re so filled up with the Holy Spirit, you don’t want to give up that particular hymn.”

Physically and emotionally demanding, this music can unspool for hours, reinforcing a spiritual bond between members that can defy description.

“When you hear someone pray, it kind of touches you. They’re praying from the depths of their heart,” says Shelia Taliaferro, 65, of Pasadena. “The Spirit runs from heart to heart. That’s about all I can say.”

Taliaferro used to drive her father to Singing and Praying Band meetings each weekend, but she didn’t join in until he passed away. Parker joined four years ago, a year after her mother died. Colbert says this is how many of the current members came to the group. He also approaches parishioners who regularly attend prayer meetings to watch, hoping they might get involved.

Keeping the movement alive

The time commitment is enormous. Nearly every Sunday afternoon, April through December, the bands travel to various churches. And the summer brings 10 week-long camp meetings, marathon gatherings held in a revival style.

Colbert knows that this is a lot to ask from anyone in 2012, let alone young people. “Society calls them away,” he says. “There’s dance practice, there’s soccer practice, there’s football practice.”

And that wasn’t the case during the days of segregation, when the Singing and Praying Bands are thought to have been at their greatest numbers.

“We had no place to go, nothing to do,” says Mary Allen, 86, of Baltimore. “There was nothing else for you to do but go to church.”

Allen is the second-oldest member of the Singing and Praying Bands. Her story of approaching the mourner’s bench at the age of 10 is told in David’s book. Colbert says the book inspired others to join and hopes Saturday’s festival, as well as future appearances at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., on July 19 and the Library of Congress on Aug. 23, might help, too.

“We all have faith that it will be around forever. It’s part of us. It’s part of tradition,” Colbert says. “Great or small, it’s going to be around.”

Singing and Praying Bands will appear Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave., Baltimore. For information about the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival, visit www.marylandtraditions.org.