The rafters at St. John Baptist Church in Long Beach received a thorough shaking on a recent Saturday.
First came the rousing strains of such popular gospel numbers as "I'm Blessed" and "Follow Me." Then, singing a tune called "Holy, Holy," the choir practiced marching up the aisle behind director Johnie Mae Chambers.
"Are you going to show us how to walk now?" one singer asked. "You haven't done that yet."
"Give a little shoulder movement," responded Preston Sterling, Chambers' assistant. "You're just gonna slide."
Later Chambers advised the group to practice at home by "walking the holy holy" during household chores because, she said, it "looks like we're gonna need lots of practice." And some choir members expressed the frustration of doing something that not too many before them have ever done. "I'm having trouble with the time," Lorraine Roberts said. "I'm used to singing with music."
Welcome to an unusual experiment in interracial harmony and the first step in a grand vision by the Rev. Ralph J. Mosby, a black minister. His idea: to promote racial understanding through the sharing of religious culture. More immediately, his goal is to teach white people how to sing the gospel like blacks.
"I wanted to do something creative to draw us all together," said Mosby, the pastor of St. John Baptist and president of the South Coast Ecumenical Council. An interdenominational group with members from 100 churches in Long Beach, Carson and the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the council's goal is to promote ethnic and religious understanding in the areas that it serves.
As the spiritual leader of a mostly black congregation, Mosby saw an opportunity to do that through music. Like other black church choirs, he said, St. John's sings in a uniquely black style that has evolved through generations into a genre called "black gospel." According to Mosby, it speaks of his people's heartfelt experience from slavery to the ongoing struggle for equality. But the music's message is universal, he said. So why not put together an interracial black gospel choir whose members and audience would expand their horizons by learning from each other through the sharing of music?
Mosby's original vision called for a 500-voice ensemble that would put on a concert in downtown Long Beach's historic First Congregational Church on Nov. 19. The concert date still stands. But the number of respondents--representing churches throughout the area--has been disappointing, the pastor said. And rather than the racial diversity he envisioned, Mosby said, the vast majority of singers attending the regular rehearsals scheduled at various area churches have been white.
"Don't be disheartened," he told the 15 singers, mostly members of their own church choirs, gathered on a recent Saturday morning. "You just do what you have to do and have a joyous time in the Lord."
Mosby said he still expects to have 50 to 100 singers by Nov. 19, including a large number of blacks who are not attending rehearsals because they already know the music. Eventually, he said, he hopes to expand the project to include the music and participation of other ethnic and religious groups. But for now, he said, it would be nice to have more black singers on hand to help demonstrate their musical style to the whites.
"We want (the choir) to learn the rhythms and tonalities of black gospel," Mosby said. "Black people have grown up with it."
One obstacle, according to Chambers, an experienced black gospel singer who is St. John's minister of music, is that white people tend to clap on the downbeat while blacks clap on the upbeat. Another, she said, is the general stiffness of the whites as they attempt to perform in an unfamiliar style. And a third, she said, is their customary dependence on sheet music as opposed to the unstructured sing-it-from-the-heart style in which black gospel is generally performed.
"It's difficult," conceded Jean Gebhart, a white singer from Wesley United Methodist Church in Long Beach. "We're used to sticking to written music and here we just learn as we go along."
Said Chambers: "I don't want it sung pretty. We're making a definite statement; we're trying to get them to walk, clap and move their feet."
Most of the whites seem to be enjoying the effort.
"I think it's wonderful," Gebhart said. "It's a chance to get to know other people and be part of something ecumenical."
Said Mabel Thomas, from First Christian Church of San Pedro: Black gospel singers "sing it like they mean it. They really sing it like they're talking to the Lord and we could use a little of that."
While the white singers have made remarkable strides, Chambers said, they still have a way to go before becoming black gospel artists. "Everybody has it in them," she said, "we just need to bring it out."
And what of the characteristic walking, clapping and swaying that usually accompanies black gospel music and stems from something commonly referred to as "soul?" Chambers smiled and shook her head slightly. "It could be better," she said, "we're having a little rhythm problem, but I think rehearsal will take care of that."