[title subtitle=”WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES courtesy Saint Mark Baptist Church”][/title]
Watching the Saint Mark Sanctuary Choir file in, you can tell it’s been a long road today. The way people are walking, the pitch of their shoulders, the arch of their gaze, the strain on their faces all tell you of the weariness of the world that drags along behind them.
One by one they find a chair and slump into it; some make light conversation and there’s laughter here and there. But mostly, people just sit, politely greet one another, and focus on what’s to come.
The choir director here at Saint Mark Baptist Church in Little Rock, a burly man with a shock of white hair, calls the group to order with a tone as calm as a metronome. He speaks only what needs to be said and just loud enough to be heard. It’s been a long day for him, too. He says the title of the song just once, then his hands set the tempo.
As if loosening a valve on a water main, the soft opening notes give way to a deluge of sound, soaring and powerful enough to lift the listener out of their chair. It’s magnificent, awe-inspiring, and all the more so because even the uninitiated can see the choir is only clicking at about seventy-five percent tonight. There’s no telling what miracles this group in peak form could conjure.
“We have about eighty members on the roll,” says Darius Nelson, pastor of music and arts who directs the group. “On a regular Sunday I might see forty-five; fifty on Easter and Mothers’ Day. It’s a lot, it’s a big reasonability because we do all three services every Sunday. One choir.”
“It’s a volunteer ministry. I don’t do auditions.” Darius smiles. “I just work them hard.”
Darius arrived at Saint Mark a fresh college graduate who’d sung in the acclaimed Philander Smith College choir. With them, he sang at the Democratic National Convention and a Bill Clinton inauguration, not to mention traveled the country. Next year marks his twentieth on Saint Mark staff at the head of what is arguably the best gospel choir in Arkansas and, on any given Sunday, the best in the country.
“I’m just spirit led,” Darius says. “There’s not a lot of ways you can do church. Somebody’s gonna pray, somebody’s gonna read the Scripture and somebody’s gonna sing a song. And I don’t care how many lights you have, how many screens, how many backdrops, how many smoke machines, and we got it all, the core of it is about church.”
“It’s talking about Jesus and helping people who are coming in here hurting and sick and despondent and broken and giving them something that they can take to help them make it through at least the rest of that day or the rest of that week.”
The first number infuses something into the choir, the energy a welcome buttress against the dark night outside. But the director wants to take them higher, so he dials a rave-up. The choir, fed by a rolling bass line, stands, claps, feet moving, heads tossing, eyes, fingers, hips, sound, soul bending into exhortation.
“Ahhhh made it out!” they proclaim. “I made it out all right! Ahhhh made it out! I made it out all right!”
“Thank youuuu, Lord! You didn’t leave me nor forsake meeee! Thank youuuu, Lord, you didn’t let my enemies take meeee! I’m still in the choir – I made it out all riiiiight!”
“I grew up singing choir music and I was always in the church choir,” says Zoreda “Zoe” Richardson who has sung here since 2010. “I know it’s a God-call thing for me, because that is how I release everything and get joy, from singing. When I’m down or sad, a song can lift me up.”
“I also like ministering others up because the world is hurting and most of the time song and music is what brings us together. I don’t care how we’re fighting, what we say about each other, a song can bring us together. So, music is my thing.”
At fifty-four, Zoe is one of the members who bridges the stalwart singers with the younger ones. Even this close to Jesus, there are still things to be worked out between the generations. The result is something truly special, she says.
“Millennials are a little different. They got more bounce, they’re more upbeat, fast-paced,” she says. “Me, I like the more slow-moving songs. I don’t do all the bouncing and extra shaking. That’s not me. My back don’t take it. My knees don’t take it no more.”
“But they do add something different and I do like to see them when they’re excited. They can really, I think, reach the world, because that’s where the world is at right now.”
Saint Mark choir excellence preceded Darius as director, but under his guidance it’s gone to new heights. Hearing the tight harmonies and excellent pitch, you forget literally anyone who walks off the street can join. Amelia Farlow is one of those who can read music and she can read the director, too, having served as his music teacher in high school (and for Darius’ daughter, who affectionately called her “Grandma.”.)
“He’s done such great stuff with this choir because only a few people read music,” she says. “But even though they don’t read, their ears are really, really strong. They don’t really realize the skills he’s built in them. And we have some amazing singers in this choir. I don’t even sing a solo, I’m just holding my part. I mean, they sing like angels.”
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Amelia began singing in childhood and has been with Saint Mark since 2008. Now retired, she still lets her teacher and guider out now and then, especially when it comes to music reaching and holding onto young people.
“I had a gospel choir at Parkview (High School in Little Rock) from ‘98 to 2015 when I retired, and I literally caught hell from some people,” she says. “Some of those kids, the only church they got was singing in that gospel choir. Some of the kids would have to remind me – they called me mama – they said, ‘You know, Mama, this is my only church.’ I said, ‘Baby, at least you’re going.’”
“This relationship that children in church do, it’s a natural instinct to be giving. I had a lot of kids come into the choir that had a certain kind of attitude, but they get with the right kids and it makes a difference.”
Darius doesn’t sing tonight, but when he does, his deep voice is molasses gliding across polished marble. Online videos of the choir put that on display, like the ones where the group competed in nationwide choir competitions a few years back. They won too, something you wouldn’t know by the conspicuous absence of awards in the rehearsal room, a reflection of Darius’ insistence to keep the choir’s focus where it belongs.
“I’m not a competition guy, I’m really not,” he says. “We were preparing for the competition and the choir was like, we’re not doing any tricks, we don’t move a lot, we just stand still. It just goes back to the purity of the sound. It wasn’t about trying to put on a show or the dramatics, it was just choir singing.”
“I told them, ‘We’re going to do what we do on Sunday morning – we’re not going to do any tricks, we’re just going to sing. And if we win, to God be the glory and if we don’t, we got a great experience.’”
But win they did, and that validation was a highlight for even the longest-serving members in the room. Donna Collins, sixty-eight, grew up in this church and but for college, has been here singing since the beginning.
“I am a lead singer and I am anointed by God. I figured I was anointed to do this,” she says. “Sometimes things will come out of my mouth and they’re not planned. They are just for the glory of God and they just come out in a beautiful sound.”
Donna recalls singing a solo at age three and joined the junior choir around age six. Her voice has a rasp to it after rehearsal, but it’s always there when she needs it. Just like her Savior.
“I will say, a lot of it stems from things that I’ve been through in life,” she says. “I’ve had a lot of sicknesses and God has healed me; some sicknesses that take other people out, God has allowed me to still be around. So, I have a great place of gratitude and thanks because I know personally what He’s done for me and it was a miracle. I sing from that place of gratitude.”
At the end of rehearsal, Darius imparts some instructions and sends them home. The group slides their coats on to walk back into the cold and dark of a Tuesday night. But their step is lighter, their vision clearer and the joy with which they sang lingers like an echo in the air.
“It’s just singing about the goodness of God and how He’s brought us and kept us and provided for us and He’s just good. Even in the baddest of situations, you know, it could be worse, things could be worse. That’s the way I look at it.”
“If you haven’t been sick enough, or broke enough, or heart been broken or been disappointed by family, friends or relationships, you just keep livin’,” Darius says. “But when you’ve been through that, and you know that nobody helped you through that but God, when you start singing these songs, you just kinda get that joy. That’s the joy that swells up.”
Catch the Saint Mark Sanctuary Choir at three services every Sunday.
Service times are 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.
Saint Mark Baptist Church
5722 West 12th Street, Little Rock, Arkansas