Having been about seven months since I last visited the Toyota Center in downtown Houston, I reflected as I traveled to the venerable sports arena last evening on the heavy hitters who were speakers during the all day motivational seminar I enjoyed on my previous visit. With personalities such as General Colin Powell, Evangelist (excuse me)… Republican Sarah Palin, Ex-NY Mayor Rudi Giuliani. Ex-Razorback Coach Lou Holtz, and motivational icon Zig Zigler, the place on that particular day had been a magnet for all business mogul wannabes, albeit with a small section marked off for us souls who were far past our prime and simply attended because we wanted to hear some good stories.
     This time the purpose was far different. My family was en route to the center to hear music, and since our beloved daughter-in-law was going to be on stage during one of the performances, we felt a paternal obligation to be there and yell, “That’s my daughter-in-law!” She was part of a group of singers (Bethel Praise Choir) from our church, Bethel Tabernacle, which had been selected to participate in the “How Sweet The Sound” musical celebration sponsored by Verizon Wireless. This musical celebration of gospel choirs is in its third year of sponsorship by the giant communications company, and the process begins when regional choirs submit videos of performances and are judged on presentation, skill, and musical abilities. Those eight groups who are fortunate to make it to the Toyota Center are the crème de la crème and the winner of the Toyota Center sing-off goes to Washington for the national finals in November of this year. Not to mention that there’s generous prizes involved: just making it to the Toyota Center puts $3,000 in the pockets of the choir, and the night’s winner can walk away with as much as $15,000 plus a free ride to Washington for the finals.
     Up until this point, the choir contestants could pick their own songs, but for the Toyota Center concert, each choir was allegedly assigned a new song to practice, learn, and present. We have found out since that, while our group was assigned a song, other groups were allowed to sing songs of their own choosing. The reason for this inequity remains a matter of conjecture. The groups were divided into small choirs and large choirs, and, since our group is a fairly small ensemble, it was assigned to the small choir category. The song for them to learn was “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” which is, according to Wikipedia, a “Negro spiritual that originates from before the American Civil War…thus it is what scholars call a slave song, a label that describes their origins among the enslaved and contains coded messages of hope and resistance.”
     I love these songs. When I taught United States History in school and our time line reached the pre-Civil War Era, I usually spent a day in class teaching my kids to sing a few of these old songs that projected such powerful messages of longing and hope. More than once, my students thought I was nuts when they saw tears in my eyes as they innocently sang of travails and struggles they knew nothing about.
     The Sunday before the concert, the Praise Choir gave a dry run presentation to our church, and the effect was incredible. Without a sound of music, a cappella, our singers projected through beautiful harmony a powerful message of spiritual encouragement. The church responded in kind, and a wave of worship swept through the building. Our lead singer, Misty Hargrave, offered a perfect balance of power and spirit with minimum theatrics. Hopes were high as the big day of the concert approached.
     Arriving at the Toyota Center parking garage and paying the modest(!) $20 parking fee, we walked the short distance to the center. The center, home to the Houston Rockets, seats around 14,000, I think, and is heavily used for every imaginable venue. As I walked toward the entrance I began to observe more about what “How Sweet The Sound” was all about. In the first place, the crowd was predominantly African-American, and once we were inside and I was able to pick up a copy of the program I realized who Verizon’s target market for this musical experience was. The celebrities, judges, masters of ceremonies, and a majority of choir participants were African-American.
     Now, before you get the wrong idea, please understand that I feel when it comes to spiritual, powerful, moving presentations of gospel music, no one can touch the depth of soul and heart like the African-American singer. So my conclusions after observing our entrance into the Toyota Center was that we were going to hear some really outstanding choir music, and that it was going to be a very enjoyable night.
     The dual Masters of Ceremonies were Donald Lawrence and Cece Winans, both heavy hitters in the African-American gospel music realm. I’m sure Donald Lawrence deserved the accolades he received, but, I’m sorry, someone needs to show him how to dress. I know this betrays my age, but in the sixties super skinny pant legs and narrow lapels on a suit were in…but not now. And glittery sneakers? Somehow the image was not memorable. Cece Winans, on the contrary, was dressed to the teeth. Slinky floor length gown, beautifully coiffured, she seemed to me to be sort of the Janet Jackson of the gospel set…lots of image and flash with a medium dash of skill. The prompt cards gave her a little trouble. Fortunately the idle chatter between the two hosts was minimal, and the choirs were the main attraction.
     As luck would have it, the Bethel Praise Choir was the first group out of the chute. As the lights, dimmed everyone in our section, which constituted a considerable number of Bethel Tabernaclers, collectively held our breaths as Shelaine Fauss-Everhardt, choir leader, gave the first wave of her arms.
     All I can tell you is the Bethel Praise Choir absolutely nailed it. Before they were halfway through, the crowd of ten thousand plus was on its feet, and, when Misty Hargrave really got into it, there was a wave of praise which swept the center. The judges were swaying along with our choir members, and when they finished with their last “Mary!” the crowd erupted. It was totally thrilling. The judges gushed praise to Shelaine and Misty with not a single word of suggestion or criticism. It was a proud moment for our choir and for our church.
     There were three other contestants in the small choir category. “Heaven Bound,” a Seventh Day Adventist group, sang the way you would expect Adventists to sing…beautifully…but without an ounce of spirit or conviction. The “Bible Days City Voices” and the “Bethel Temple Pentecostal Church Mass Choir” (too long a name) were traditional all-African-American groups which sang as many such groups do…tremendous spirit and worship but only middling in skill. In every instance, the judges were complimentary, but offered some point of suggestion or criticism that they felt would improve the presentation. To make a long story short, once all groups had finished, we felt that our group had won, hands down, no contest.
     In the large choir category, let me say simply that the Royalwood Sanctuary Choir from Pastor Macey’s United Pentecostal Church blew the doors off the other three contestants’ carriages. By the time they finished singing “God Blocked It!” half the audience was shouting, Sister Macey, their choir director was dancing around, and the judges were waving and bouncing also. It was an amazing demonstration of singing with spirit and a confirmation that the singers were singing the way they did because they knew, and had experienced, what they were singing about.
     The time finally came for the awards to be presented, and Bethel Tabernacle held its collective breath for the second time. It was not surprising when Royalwood Sanctuary Choir won the large choir category and the ticket to Washington for the finals (not to mention $15,000.) By this time we had seen clips of last year’s performances at the finals, and I had decided it was highly unlikely that a small choir group would go to Washington since all the groups there seemed to have been of the large variety. But we were stunned…shocked…and dismayed when the small choir award went to the Adventist’s “Heaven Bound” group, the group with the funereal presentation, the group that one judge said he wished they had sung the song with more spirit and connected with the audience.
     As we were leaving the Toyota Center, still in shock and mumbling to ourselves, we overheard two different people just in our area and not connected to our group say they "thought that other group…the Bethel group, was much better.” We let them know we agreed. Being somewhat analytical in nature, I tried to determine why the obvious verdict had not been reached and for what purpose would a decision contrary to the obvious be made, and I have come to one or two scenarios:
     “How Sweet The Sound” is a marketing strategy by Verizon Wireless to reach a particular audience. The brochure, the presentation, the style of delivery all point to a market segment which Verizon feels is an untapped source of future income. It must have been particularly galling to the marketing director for Verizon who was introduced to the crowd to see Royalwood, which is not a group which represents the target market for Verizon, blow away the competition to the point of no contest. But once it became evident that Royalwood was the hands down winner, I can also see a decision being made by Mr. Verizon…or the judges (that’s the second scenario)…that they’re not going to allow TWO non-representative and non-targeted groups walk away with all the prize money. So the best small choir was slighted and the money went to probably the second best group, minimal spirituality notwithstanding.
     However disappointed we were in the outcome, our pride in our little band of singers swelled to probably excessive levels. They represented our church with honor, and their singing brought a worshipful spirit into the Toyota Center that was unmatched. In the final analysis, powerful singing does not come from culture or latent talent, but rather it comes from a deep personal experience with our Creator. And to think, we get to hear the Bethel Praise Choir just about every service!