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Gospel Group Embraces All Races

Hollywood choir founded by a white lawyer melds the voices of a varied lot of singers. Love of music binds them together.

November 02, 2002|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

The church in which Patrick Hare grew up did not allow musical expression of any kind. So the toe-tapping role the religious-minded public defender has taken on these days would probably surprise some of his former brethren.

He is founder, frontman and spiritual bellwether for the interdenominational, intergenerational and interracial Hollywood Mass Choir, a group that is an almost perfect manifestation of Los Angeles' kaleidoscopic diversity.

Among the 60-member ensemble is a female Brazilian chaplain who works at Childrens Hospital, a Chinese political and religious refugee who wasn't allowed to sing in her home country, an arranger who has worked with Aretha Franklin and Bill Cosby, a graphic artist, a therapist, homeless people and others -- many of them with little or no formal musical training.

They are something rare for Los Angeles: a disparate collection of backgrounds, incomes and ZIP Codes that has come together as a family. And only a year after forming, they are among the five finalists Saturday night in Gospelfest at the Shrine Auditorium, Southern California's premier event to choose the best amateur vocal groups.

Despite their lack of background, the Hollywood choir members are no poseurs. They are not gospel with a gloss of the bland and commercial; that is the kind of contemporary Christian music that Hare found so unfulfilling after abandoning the fundamentalist church of his youth.

"I was looking for something with good quality lyrics, something that was a fusion of blues, rock and spiritual, and I found that in gospel music that is in the tradition of the black church," said Hare, who is white.

Hare's faith also guided him to become a public defender (he has worked in the Los Angeles County office 13 years), representing accused who have few means. "People I wouldn't have encountered in my pretty sheltered suburban existence," he said.

Hare and many of the choir members attend Hollywood Presbyterian Church, where the group was recently rehearsing for the Shrine event, which is in its 18th year and benefits a high school scholarship fund.

In the darkened and cool sanctuary of the church, Hare was animated as he led his group through the paces of the old up-tempo spiritual "Rock-A My Soul," one of two songs it will perform Saturday.

Hare grew up in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, and was a voice and performance major in college before heading to Boston University, where he obtained a law degree. After moving to Los Angeles, he began singing in the choruses of Long Beach Opera and Opera Pacific.

After discovering gospel, he became one of the few non-African American members of a local chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop, a venerable group founded by the Rev. James Cleveland.

When Hare decided to form his own choir he was encouraged by the workshop. He put out fliers soliciting members on church bulletin boards, at record stores that sell gospel music, over Internet lists and even at the popular Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles soul food restaurant.

Hare said the auditions consisted of "showing up" and that members mainly had to have a desire to spread the joyful noise of traditional black gospel.

That idiom's sense of sorrowful burden leavened with righteous uplift, Hare thought, could help build a ministry of music that would feel as at home in La Canada-Flintridge as in South-Central.

The choir has performed in both those places and takes its message of redemption to hospitals, jails, shelters for the homeless, nursing homes and other community events.

Such outings, "in places where it's not easy to get Jesus in their lives or hear gospel," are what particularly appeal to Corey Robinson denBok, a high school sophomore, who joined the choir a few months ago.

Choir member Debbie Ding came to this country only four years ago from China after applying for political asylum. Her family was persecuted because they were not communists and practiced Christianity, said Ding, and she was not able to receive the music training she desired. On Saturday she'll realize a dream.

"It took me 30 years to get on stage," she said cheerily as the choir took a break. "At the rehearsals I have tears in my eyes because I'm so appreciative. I never tell [Patrick]. Maybe he notices, but I never tell him."

Maricarmen Castro, a chaplain at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, knew Hare for years but hesitated to join the choir.

Originally from Brazil, she was unsure if she could sing English-language spirituals with no written words in front of her until she thought more about the music's origins among field slaves who passed on the traditions without notes on paper.

"I was fascinated by the whole setting," Castro said of her first meetings. "I had no background in singing but I wasn't intimidated, because there were so many others like me. It's a great example of how to break down barriers of culture and race."

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