For nearly four hours on a recent Monday night, about 7,000 people, almost all of them African-American, made a joyful noise unto the Lord — singing along with gospel classics, cheering on their favorite choir and praising God.
They were attending the St. Louis regional finals for “How Sweet the Sound: The Search for the Best Church Choir in America.”
The evening was organized by sponsor Verizon Wireless as a straight-forward competition among eight church choirs. But by the end of the night, contestants and audience members alike had participated in a powerful, if heartbreakingly brief, moment of racial harmony.
For generations, African-Americans have stayed in touch with their past through their churches, transforming a distinct style of musical worship from harrowing history into celebration.
“African-Americans have a way of delivering a song with a certain spirit,” said Anita Watkins Stevens, director of music ministries at New Sunny Mount Missionary Baptist Church in north St. Louis. “For us, it’s not a performance, but the essence of what we are.”
Stevens leads New Sunny Mount’s choir, which came into Monday night’s contest at Scottrade as the defending champion. Last year, its choir won the overall prize and went on to compete in the national finals in Atlanta.
“How Sweet the Sound” organizers asked choirs from across the country to audition via a DVD performance. Judges chose eight choirs — four of 35 members or fewer, and four of 36 members and up — to perform. During the regional contests, each choir sings one song, and a panel of three judges chooses the best small choir, the best large choir and an overall winner in each region. There’s also a people’s choice winner, selected by audience text messages.
Of the eight choirs competing Monday night, three were mostly white. And one after another, they sang traditionally African-American gospel songs in an African-American style, surprising — and delighting — the crowd and judges. But it was the 75-member Faith Baptist Church choir from Festus, Mo., that brought the audience to its feet.
This was an audience that knew gospel music, and that made choir director Michael Nickelson and some choir members nervous.
“I didn’t want to be a white choir trying to be a black choir,” Nickelson said. The choir began slowly and quietly, harmonizing a gospel classic, Andrae Crouch’s “Soon and Very Soon.” Then, at the beginning of the second verse, Nickelson shed his tails, tossing his coat stage left, just as the choir picked up the tempo.
He was in the zone, employing a time-honored African-American choir director tradition of using his entire body to guide his band and singers.
The crowd roared its approval. Choir members got into the spirit, too, clapping and moving to the music. When Faith Baptist finished, a standing ovation was unnecessary. Audience members were already on their feet. The judges seemed equally amazed. “I have never seen a white brother move like that,” said gospel legend and judge Dorinda Clark Cole, speaking of Nickelson’s performance.
By the end of the night, Faith Baptist had won the audience award, the large choir award and the overall best choir award. In November, the choir will compete in the finals in Detroit against choirs from that city and nine others: Houston, Washington, Newark, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif.