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SOUNDS OF PRAISE: In Las Vegas and beyond, the church choir remains integral to the African-American faith experience.

March 31, 2013 by  
Filed under Feature


From left to right, seated, Winona Preston and Tiffany Pipes, standing, Minister of Music the Rev. Jonathon Luff; Jamie Shaw, Sharon Warren, Carmen Fowler and Evelyn Stewart.

Long before they arrived in America on slave ships, many Africans practiced their own form of Christianity, which mixed their newer beliefs with ancient customs. During slavery, African captives worshiped secretly in what were called “hush harbors” — underground gathering places where their spirituality could not be detected by slave owners.

In those eras, as today, singing and praise dancing served as essential rituals — making the choir among the oldest African-American religious traditions.

Indeed, music has always been vital to the black spiritual experience. Much of the music heard in the modern African-American church, which brings such divine joy on Sunday mornings, has historical roots in the hymns that slaves harmonized to ease their suffering.

The drumbeat still rings in our souls. No matter how your day or week has gone, the early-morning gospel music found in the church always reaches jubilant hearts. The hand-clapping begins with arms raised in praise, before the word is showered upon the congregation. The effortlessly synchronized harmony of the choir is a lovely reminder of another eternal spiritual principle: No one walks alone.

Among the oldest and largest black congregations in Las Vegas is Second Baptist Church, located in the historic Westside community. Its mass choir, called Voices, includes about 75 members; there is also a men’s choir, a women’s choir and one comprised of young people.

The Second Baptist sound is led by its minister of music and art, the Rev. Jonathon Luff, who says his church’s choir “is uniquely different from other choirs, because we endeavor in the chase of worship. Our focus is not on what is popular; we just really want to uplift Jesus. The choir is essential to the black church. If the preacher is the blood, the musical ministry is the veins. We carry the music to the people, and prepare the mind to uplift Jesus with worship.”

Berna Rhodes-Ford, choir member at Victory Missionary Baptist Church.

Berna Rhodes-Ford, an attorney, has sung in the church choir for many years. She became a member of Victory Missionary Baptist Church when she and her husband, Sen. Aaron Ford, relocated to Las Vegas in 2000.

“I love being a member of Victory’s church choir, (because) I … know how important the choir is to the black church,” she said. “For example, many movies that portray the black community almost always show a scene of the choir in the black church. What that displays to me is how important the choir is within the church. It represents uplifting emotions, our religion and lifestyle. Our gospel songs are inspirational, and tell a story of what we have struggled through and what we have overcome.”

Though the choir remains integral to worship in the black church, the gospel music that is popularly celebrated on the national stage no longer relies on its timeless harmony. To some, that leaves a void that local churches continue to fulfill for believers.

“The current face of gospel music on the celebrity stage consists of a majority of solo performers, such as Marvin Sapp, Fred Hammond and many others,” Luff said. “I love these performers and what they do, but the collective church choir is not spotlighted. It shows a lack of unity within the gospel industry. There is power in numbers, and we have lost a lot of that. The church choir is vitally important. It holds and solidifies gospel music as a whole.”

Added Pastor Henry Black, who hosts Gospel Drive on KCEP 88.1 FM, and is a member of the Gospel Announcers and Broadcasting Association: “The gospel choir plays a major role in the black church, because it emotionally moves the congregation. The better the music, the better the gospel is received. The church drives people not only by information, but also by inspiration. The music sung by the church choir is preparation for worship.”

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