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Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Traveling choir of teens sing for the Lord

By Jessica Connor

ImageA hush descends upon the room as they begin, voices pitched in perfect harmony. Sopranos, altos, tenors and basses rush together like powerful water, ebbing and flowing, lifting and turning, all to the glory of the Father.

Their young faces reflect the words they sing – some tucked in reverence, some upturned, with shimmers of light from the stained glass church windows dancing across their smooth skin.

And as they sing, the Holy Spirit begins to fill the room, glowing and growing as the melody eases along to a close.

Audience members wipe tears from their eyes, their breath catching: This is the youth of our United Methodist Church, voices lifted for the Lord in holy worship. These are the Spirit Singers.


Conference’s best-kept secret

Since 1987, the Spirit Singers have traveled South Carolina in a Christian ministry of song, fellowship, leadership and worship that glorifies and praises God as testimony to His love.

Then packaged under a different name – the S.C. Conference Youth Choir – they started under the leadership of June Willson, with Stan Farr from West Virginia as director. In its early days, the choir met solely as a summer mission event.

But about 10 years ago, when Kathy Jo Long became director and their name changed, the Spirit Singers transitioned to a year-round event with four weekend performances during the year, plus a weeklong camp culminating in a cross-state choir travel.

Today, they have a reputation as a solid, spirited group of young voices who work tirelessly to bring a song-filled worship experience to UMCs all over South Carolina.

“We may be one of the best kept secrets of the conference, since people who hear the group are constantly saying they never heard of us before,” Long said.

Long and the rest of the team – six other regular staffers (including a choir dean, accompanist and nurse), a host of committed parents and the youth themselves – work tirelessly to master the year’s lineup of songs.

Camp is a songster’s version of the Army’s basic training: grueling practices, musical drilling, rehearsal after rehearsal, all culminating in a four- or even five-part harmony choir.

Songs range from traditional to the kind of contemporary praise you hear on a Christian radio station. The singers don’t know the music until they arrive at camp, held at Spartanburg Methodist College, but by the time they leave, they’re expected to know it fully.

After all, they’re not just singing. They’re singing for the Lord.

“It makes me better,” Julia Belton, 18, of Shiloh UMC, Camden, said of her four years singing with the Spirit Singers. “Every time I come, I’m reminded I’m a child of God. It’s almost like a revival.”


Really feeling it

And it’s not just rote. The Singers have a reputation for really feeling the words they sing, then communicating that rapture to the audience.

“It was fabulous, a treasure. You could tell they truly believed what they were singing to the congregation,” said a teary-eyed Lisa Dissington, member of St. John’s UMC in Rock Hill, where the Singers performed in early January.

Wesley Runyan, 17, of Main Street UMC, Greenwood, said his experience with the Singers has been life-changing on many levels. He was “roped into” the group by a youth leader at his church, and at the time, he wasn’t sure what he believed.

Then, in the middle of a song, he found Christ.

“I was saved – it just hit me like a brick wall,” said Runyan, who said he now knows what he wants to do in life.

Emmy Baker, 17, a first-year Spirit Singer from Moncks Corner UMC, Bonneau, agrees.

“I used to sing just because I like it,” she said. “Now I actually feel the message.”

The Singers present more than a concert or a performance, Long said. It’s a worship experience.

At the 11 a.m. service Jan. 9 at St. John’s UMC, Rock Hill, the Singers took the place of the pastor’s sermon. After all, the words of their songs are one big, melodic discourse on the Lord. With hymns like “Knowing You,” “Come to the Cross,” “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” and “Give Me Your Eyes,” the songs praise the Lord and encourage scriptural calls to serve the least of these, to seek heavenly strength, to draw peace from Jesus.

Scripture peppers the presentation, with individual singers speaking memorized passages as a prelude to each song.

All of this creates an atmosphere of holy worship that often surprises those who witness it.

“They act surprised that they’re so good,” said accompanist Beth Lewallen, whose daughter Grace is a Spirit Singer. “People will say, ‘I had no idea what to expect,’ and the Scriptures really speak to them on a spiritual level. It’s a message, not a performance.”

Belton said it changes many people’s perspective of teenagers.

“A lot of people think we’re all the same, and after [we sing], they’ll come up and say now they know the world will be alright,” said Belton, who now hopes to create her own school of music one day.

“This is the youth the United Methodist Church is bringing up,” said Judy Suggs, choir dean. “People are so touched.”


No wimps or prima donnas

The Spirit Singers are not open to just anyone – it’s an auditioned group of teens aged 13 through high school.

Long, a Winthrop University music education graduate with a master’s from Wesley in Cambridge, Mass., seeks a full four-part choir, a “big group song,” she says.

“We’re not looking for a bunch of prima donnas. We need people who will work and blend together, become a team for the good of the group,” Long said. “We may have a great soloist come in, but some of my biggest mistakes have been allowing that person in; it can really hurt the group. I look for attitude and heart, as well as talent.”

The young singers come from all over the state, and their parents are expected to help in any way possible, from driving them to performance weekends to rearranging family schedules to make time for the group.

Some of the singers come from huge churches with big music programs, but a lot come from tiny churches with no youth group or choir at all – they just love to sing. Participants include football players, dancers, volleyball players, cheerleaders and chess club members.

In fact, they don’t need to be musical or have experience at all, as long as they sound good.

“It’s helpful, but I take them from how they present themselves to me – though that can be ticklish because young people may fall apart in an audition,” Long said.

“It’s not for wimps, is it?” she added, laughing.

Auditions are held in various locations. This year, they will be Feb. 26 in Summerville and in Marion, March 5 in York and March 12 in Columbia. 

Jackson Varner, 16, a leader for the praise band at Bethany UMC, Summerville, said he appreciates how the group has improved his vocals. After three years in the Singers, he enjoys being able to fellowship with other teens and feel closer to God while doing what he loves: singing.

“You’re not just sitting there,” said Varner, who is now training to be a minister. “You really feel it.”

On that chilly January morning in Rock Hill, Long stands before the hundreds gathered in the sanctuary to introduce her flock of young singers.

She talks about how music is a holy gift from God, how “sing” is the most-used action verb in the Bible. She encourages the audience to use “ten-fingered amens” (clapping) as the Spirit moves them.

And as the Spirit Singers begin, their voices lifted heavenward, the room is filled with the sounds of their songs, the warmth of the Spirit and the rush of those ten-fingered amens.

The Singers’ last performance of the 2010-11 season will be at 10:30 a.m. March 13 at Cayce UMC. For more on the choir, visit www.umcsc.org/youth and click the “Spirit Singers” tab.

 

 
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