When Asa Cain first heard the Oak Park and River Forest High School Gospel Choir as a seventh-grader, he thought, “Wow! They’re really good.” When he became a freshman, he had second thoughts about it, but wound up joining the choir because, as he puts it, “I just couldn’t not join. I was raised in the church and grew up with gospel music.”

That’s the rationale of almost everyone who joins this choir. They love to sing, and gospel music is part of who they are. “The reason I joined the gospel choir,” Jocelyn Garrett explained, “is because I was raised in the church.”

In addition, she and Paige Evans have aspirations of singing professionally some day.

“I joined because it’s my way of ministering to people,” said Ashley Doxy, “and I love to sing.”

Brandon Pittman added, “I joined the gospel choir because it’s a good way of showing how good I can sing.”

The reason they join, in other words, is the music. The reason they stay, however, is more complex. Garrett remembered the week following the death of Devontae Green on Oct. 25.

“He was close to a lot of us,” she said. “When I came here that day, I was feeling really down and asking God, ‘Why did you take somebody who was perfect, basically?’ But once I talked to Cordell [another choir member], I just got it. I knew this was the group for me. I understand things a whole lot more than what I did before. The support level is off the charts.”

TaTyana Bonds recalled how hard her freshman year was. “Honestly,” she said, “I don’t think I could have gotten through it without the gospel choir. If you have a problem, someone is always there for you. Like, you’re never left behind.”

Teylur Day echoed Bond’s statement saying, “We’re like a family. If you have the baddest two days on Monday and Tuesday and you come here on Wednesday, you can just let it all out and talk about it. Because we’re brothers and sisters and friends, we don’t hide anything. We’re just so close together that you have to like it.”

Day attributes much of the closeness in the choir to how the director, Latonia Brown, and her husband treat them. “It’s not just the kids. Miss Brown’s husband-we call him Paw Paw-and Miss Brown-we call her Maw Maw … like earlier today I was talking to Miss Brown about how I was feeling, and she really helped me. And my Paw Paw, he makes sure I stay on top of my homework. Like one big family, we help each other out. That’s what we’re here for.”

The students are very aware that all but a couple members of the choir are African-American. “There are not a lot of white kids here,” said Carly Jones, “because they think it’s like a stereotypical group, like it’s just for African-Americans. I’m not African American, but I still joined because it’s what I like to do.”

“Personally, I can say I do get upset when they say it’s for black kids only because it’s not,” said Trevor Ivy. “We have a diverse school. People make themselves segregated. If you’re choosing not to be in a group because you feel uncomfortable, maybe ask a friend to come with you. Don’t just do everything by yourself.”

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Many choir members said, in effect, it’s a cultural thing. Cain pointed out that no one is trying to make anyone uncomfortable, but if he goes into a room with all white people, he gets what he calls “that feeling.”

“One of the reasons I think there aren’t a lot of white kids,” he said, “is because this is a predominantly black group. It’s not that we’re intentionally making it uncomfortable. [White students] are welcome. We do open our arms, but we do all worship in different ways. It’s hard to explain.”

Alexis Collins added that one sign the choir is open to students of all races is that they intentionally include in their performances not only gospel music but songs from other genres as well. “We don’t do just upbeat songs,” she said. “We do everything else, too.”

The choir’s director looks at the group’s near homogeneity from the perspective of a teacher. Brown emphasized that the group does not push religion or any specific type of worship, but the music does lean toward what African-American kids are used to. She thinks the reason so few white kids join so far is twofold. First, they don’t picture themselves as being part of the group, and second, they don’t hear the kind of music they’re used to hearing.

“But,” she added, “they are welcome.”

Brown’s comment about not pushing religion provided a segue to a discussion about musical references to God in a school setting. Most gave a knowing nod when one of the members mentioned that “someone threw a fit” when the choir sang a song during a Martin Luther King program that mentioned God.

Part of the gospel culture is that singing songs about God is the norm. Many students say they stay in the choir partly because it is one place in school where they can talk “God talk” without watching their backs.

“I actually try not to talk about God that much at school,” Bonds admitted. “People do get offended. They get very defensive when I talk about God. I wish it were different. I wish we could express ourselves fully all the time at school. I’m not going to complain about it because I still feel like I can come here to the choir and talk about God, and I’m surrounded by people who believe in what I believe.”

“It’s not that I’m going to throw my religion on somebody,” Collins said. What bothers her is what she feels is a taboo against bringing God into any discussion in school.

Like it or not, the gospel choir does seem to have a reputation around school for being kind of a “God squad.” That feels like an unfair burden to some in the group.

“The thing people have to realize,” said Cain, “is that everybody makes mistakes. We can sing about gospel and have our own personal relationship with Jesus, but we still have our life issues. Just because you’re in the gospel choir doesn’t mean you can’t get mad at a teacher and get a detention. We shouldn’t be labeled as the ‘good kids’ because we’re all the same. It’s just that we have a relationship with God.”

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Parrish Lomax brought the discussion about faith back to how many members experience the choir as a support group. He explained it this way. “I was raised in church all my life, so basically I’m in church all day on Sunday, but on weekdays I have my problems. That’s when I have most of my problems, during the week at school. The gospel choir helps me not eliminate my problems but teaches me through songs how to overcome them.”

Many African-Americans use the term “representing” to mean the responsibility they feel about their behavior speaking not just for themselves but for their whole race. One of the highest compliments you could give another person was, “You’re a scholar and a good representative of your race.”

“Representing” was a heavy burden in years past, and it still is for some of the members of the gospel choir. Bonds said she felt she was walking in kind of a spotlight because she was representing the choir and Ms. Brown as well as her race.

“When I hear people say stuff abut gospel choir, like things that aren’t positive, yeah, I get upset, but we have to kind of just keep a positive attitude toward everything. If we walk around school reacting negatively, that’s going to make it look even worse. They already discriminate against us because we are a predominantly black group. What do you think they would say if we were acting like they expected us to act?”

In many ways, the gospel choir is a safe haven for its members-a calm port when the voyage of adolescence gets stormy. But it is also a passport to destinations they’ve never visited. The ensemble traveled to Atlanta and Orlando last year and actually performed at Disney World. This year they will be touring several state universities in Illinois.

Last year they also raised $500 for a family in Africa through an organization called African Circle. A representative from the organization came in and gave a slide presentation about the work they do, and choir members went out for two weeks soliciting funds from their classmates in the lunch room.

Bonds said, “When you do something good like that for people, and people are appreciative, it makes you want to do more.” Reflecting on how she felt as a freshman and how the gospel choir has been a positive influence in her life, she added, “When you walk around with a positive attitude and people like you and see you happy all the time, people want to be like that. People want to change.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...