It’s once again that time of year when I don’t know whether to say it’s pumpkin season or Jack-o-Lantern season.
It all has to do with this Christian dichotomy of how we regard Halloween. Is it a nationwide glorification of all things wicked, sinful, and abominable? Or is it merely a cultural ritual that celebrates the adrenaline rush of being scared, touts the fun of dressing up like something we’re not, and grants us permission to eat high-calorie sweets without guilt?
We can answer the question of what Halloween was by studying its origins. One of the world’s oldest holidays, it started with the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in) that marked the end of summer. Believing the spirits of the dead would return, Celts lit bonfires, wore disguises and offered animal sacrifices to their deities to ward off ghosts. From that information, courtesy of the History Channel, we can imagine the evil celebrations that likely evolved as part of these practices.
But does that presumed celebration continue when we allow our kids to dress up and go door-to-door asking neighborly strangers for sweet treats? Are we acting as agents of the devil by donning our costumes for the various parties we’ll go to this weekend and Monday, likely with church worship services in between?
I would argue that the majority of people who plan to participate in the candy trade, costume parties, and perhaps mass readings of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will not consider themselves celebrators of all things wicked.
Instead, it seems as if a sizable handful of Christians have created something else, devoid of any representation of questionable origins, for the sake of fellowship over bite-sized candy instead of bread. Quite honestly, the only evil I see in candy corn and other delectable features of the holiday, is the sugar content — and maybe the fact that isn’t sold in abundance year-round.
At the same time, I don’t deny the validity in the argument of those who vehemently denounce everything related to Halloween, including the motivation to make money. That’s likely what has made the holiday the hullabaloo it has become. Some interpretations of Halloween do, in fact, include Ouija boards, séances, and satanic rituals. I’m willing to bet, though, that people who practice that side of Halloween “fun” don’t need a holiday for that.
As an alternative to all that is demonic and unholy about Halloween, many churches opt to have a “Hallelujah Night,” where people still collect candy and play dress up — just in the form of biblical characters.
I attended several of those in my younger days. One year, it took me a while to figure out why one first lady came dressed like Barney. Turns out she was actually dressed as Lydia, the lady who sold — and apparently wore — purple. I was obviously less studied then, so she wasn’t the only one who threw me for a loop. The presumed Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz turned out to be the Lion of Judah. I never dressed up, but I often wondered whether my preferred costumes would’ve disqualified me from the festivities. After all, one kid wearing a sheet over his head and a cross around his neck had trouble at the door. The irony that the Holy Ghost almost couldn’t get into the church on Hallelujah Night wasn’t lost on me.
What if I had dressed as Saul’s buddy, the witch of Endor? That’s a biblical character. Or suppose I’d shown up with a platter fixed around my neck, serving up John the Baptist? (Yes, decapitation happened in The Omen and Friday the 13th movies, but it happened first in the Bible.)
The main thing that I didn’t understand then and struggle with now is telling the difference between Halloween as commonly practiced and its church-led alternatives. Candy? Check. Games and dressing up? Check. How do we know which is which, and is there a real difference beyond what we say it is?
I don’t have an answer and likely won’t anytime soon, but I guarantee you I’ll be having some candy corn in the meantime.
SPEAKING OUT: Actor Kirk Cameron during his infamous March 2 appearance on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight."
To everyone who’s gay, was gay, has gay friends, supports gay rights: Christians don’t hate gay people. Or, despite those who actually feel that way, hatred is not an official Christian position and doesn’t appear in the WWJD handbook.
I know the rhetoric suggests otherwise whenever some religious personalities appear on TV. But please understand that the message from the loudest seemingly self-appointed Bible expositors on your nearest conservative broadcast affiliate aren’t telling the whole truth.
I don’t necessarily put Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron in the same vitriolic category as some others, despite headlines from his March 2 interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan. I read the entire transcript to confirm my assessment; though, initially, I was annoyed at what I thought was yet another loudmouth misrepresenting what it means to follow Christ. I didn’t get the sense that “Michael Seaver” was trying to browbeat anyone or trumpet an idea for the masses to bow down and accept. He was simply answering the question he was asked as honestly as he could. Still, something was missing from his now-infamous declaration that “[homosexuality is] unnatural … detrimental and ultimately destructive to so many of the foundations of civilization.”
(For the record, you know what else is unnatural? That sugary orange drink in the indistinct plastic container. I could probably make a biblical case for why it and others like it should be forbidden. But I digress.)
Make no mistake: I know what the Bible says about homosexuality in Leviticus, Romans, and 1 Corinthians, albeit in translated versions. However, my experience as a Christian who’s constantly stumbling reminds me that grace is the determining factor of how I got to this point of trying to honor God in all my thoughts, words, and actions. A part of that means extending the same love and grace that I’ve received to everyone else — regardless of what others believes or how they behave.
Anything less than that offends my Christian sensitivity to all people, all who are equally subject to doing things that would offend God. The Bible has a whole list of those things spanning across the Old and New Testaments. I’ve committed my fair share of sin, and with help from several friends, family members, and associates, we’ve likely got a majority of them covered – and that list, unfortunately, includes murder. I bet the same is true in every social circle worldwide. So, who are we to cherry pick one offense for an opportunity to don a white wig in judgment?
But that’s exactly what happens when someone wages any variety of anti-gay campaigns that distort the universally extended love of Christ. The most vocal “broadcast Christians” don’t seem to have campaigns against arrogance, envy, severe anger, laziness, lust in all its forms, greed nor gluttony. Those are the deadly ones. Other documented abominations — translation: things God hates — such as cheating, adultery, lying and creating drama (biblically known as sowing seeds of discord) seem minor.
I’m not sure why homosexuality is singled out and made into a determining factor for goodness or depravity, and it is not my desire to argue for or against it. While for some people homosexuality may be an embraced choice, for others it is natural — much in the same way it might feel natural for a married man to “check out” a woman other than his wife. Feelings happen, but acting on them is another story.
Recognizing my own weaknesses — as well as the fact that I’m not God — I’m in no position to judge. I’m also in no position to say what is or what isn’t so in the mind of someone compelled to be someone that I’m not, or do something that I wouldn’t.
As Christians, we’ve received and continue to get too much grace, forgiveness, and abounding love from God to condemn anyone else. In light of that, I often have to wonder, Where is the love?
I didn’t see it in the One Million Moms’ attempt to have Ellen DeGeneres fired as spokeswoman for J.C. Penney. I don’t see it in any of the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church. I certainly don’t hear it in the Christian conservative discourse of the current political season.
And I am sick of not seeing it from people professing to be my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Perhaps it’s popular to protest the existence of gay people to prove you’re really Christian. It has to be. Otherwise, why would strong language against gay people keep coming up? News flash: We as Christians are not known by how vehemently we target other people. We are not known by how we vote. We’re not even known by the cool Christian T-shirts that we wear. And we definitely shouldn’t be known as a right-wing, hate-mongering club of sinless holy rollers.
We’re known by the love we show to others. And if those among us haven’t mastered that love, it’s up to the rest of us to speak just as loud and proud about what Jesus would really do.
ROYAL INTRIGUE: On January 31, the beleaguered Bishop Eddie Long was crowned king in a bizarre "Jewish" ceremony that critics immediately denounced. He later apologized. (Image: YouTube video)
Last week, the scandal-ridden Baptist bishop Eddie Long received a brief moment of good news when a visiting “rabbi” declared Long a Jewish king before the congregation at his Atlanta-area megachurch. A YouTube video of the proceedings quickly went viral, and critics registered disbelief as yet another bizarre chapter was added to the Bishop Long saga.
Long has since apologized for the fiasco, but the sad strangeness of the event lingers.
Citing dual citizenship in Israel and presumably the United States, the man “on behalf of the Jewish people, the land of Israel, and the God of Israel” presents Long with the scroll, declaring, “He is a king, God’s blessed him. He’s a humble man but in him is kingship, in him is royalty, in him was the land of Israel.”
A moment later, Bishop Long is raised up in a chair and carried around the pulpit, as Rabbi Messer proclaims:
He now is raised up from a commoner to a kingship. … He ‘s no longer a commoner. He’s not under Earth; he’s raised from Earth into a heavenly realm. He’s raised in a prophetic position. He’s released by God. He’s breaking pagan tradition, breaking areas of God. He’s releasing Atlanta, Georgia. It’s not him, it’s the king in him.
Jewish religious leaders immediately called the display offensive. It “in no way represents any Jewish ritual that I’m familiar with,” Bill Nigut of the Anti-Defamation League told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We do not proclaim individuals to be kings.”
In his apology, Long said it was not “my intent, to participate in any ritual that is offensive in any manner to the Jewish community, or any group.” But he left unanswered questions of how the dubious rabbi wound up at his church in the first place.
While Bishop Long’s situation is extreme, one could argue that grandiose presentations of religious ritual take place every week in many black churches, as all-powerful preachers are afforded the star treatment from their parishioners. However, it is this type of ceremonious display of adoration of pastors and other spiritual leaders that makes it difficult for some to remember that they too are human and subject to the same weaknesses that, without proper accountability and support, can ultimately lead to scandal.
A Long Story
For more than a year, with his wife most recently filing divorce papers, Long found himself at the center of such a scandal where he faced accusations of sexual coercion by four young men. Long settled out of court in May 2011 with a reported $15 million payment to his accusers. Trouble from the case continued throughout the year with lost income to the church, the closing of the church’s private school New Birth Academy, and a lawsuit alleging financial misdealing in investments for a handful of church members.
Known for an extravagant display of wealth, Long was said to have been a purveyor of the oft-criticized “prosperity gospel,” which not only pushed the idea that God’s blessings appeared in the form of expensive cars, clothing, and accessories but also showcased a leader similarly clad and almost worshiped by his or her congregants. National Public Radio reported in 2010 that Long drove a $350,000 Bentley and had purchased a $1.1 million home.
It’s hard to say whether the glitz and the religious superstardom led to Long’s woes. But for one Church of God in Christ pastor, Bishop Roger Jones Sr., that along with unresolved personal issues is exactly what led to his downfall.
Bishop Roger Jones
Jones, now pastor of Greater Holy Temple Ministries in Flint, Michigan, wrote about his experiences with adultery, drug use, isolation, and deceit in his book, When Life Hurts, Dreams Fade, Hope Again. In it, he notes that the clearly immoral behavior he engaged in started with the isolation and built up pride he gained for being highly regarded by those around him.
“The fall I experienced has to do with much of the pomp and splendor and promotions that go along with the politics of power — the franchise, the perks, the accommodations, the limousines, the suites at hotels, the seats you sit in,” he said.
Called to preach at age 18, Jones was a high achiever in ministry and quickly took on the invincibility perpetuated through increasing popularity, continual success, and constant praise. Jones wrote that ministerial success brought financial perks as well.
“I’m wondering how much that affected me, given my humble background as a person who didn’t have much, who then came into a lot of money and power and position and prestige — maybe I allowed all that to push me over the edge. Maybe I was trying to fulfill a sense of insecurity with other things.”
The Pastor’s Split Persona
Dr. Patrick Moon, a psychologist at Cornerstone Counseling Center in Chicago, says that insecurity is likely evident in everyone and that pastors and spiritual leaders are not exempt. According to Moon, who specializes in pastoral counseling and spiritual support, pastors aren’t immune from emulating the group patterns from their families of origin and are often drawn to church organizations that complement those learned behaviors of interaction.
Dysfunctional familial patterns that may have started in a minister’s childhood that haven’t been addressed play a major role in coping with the general isolation and ongoing demands of pastoring.
“A pastor comes from a family system and learns from that family system how to behave,” Moon says. “Sometimes the dysfunction of that family system bleeds over to the church. Unresolved emotions of those family systems transfer to the church.”
It’s for that reason that “pastors and clergy in seminary are recommended to seek their own psychotherapists at times when they’re having trouble.”
When a scandal happens, it’s more than the oft-assumed thought that he or she lacks a moral compass or simply doesn’t believe in the God he or she preaches. There’s definitely more to the story, Moon says.
“A pastor has to create a persona that has to be integrated into the church’s expectations,” and it’s in that integration that the person who emerges publicly may not be who the pastor is. That dichotomy doesn’t necessarily equate to holy vs. spiritual. It could be a matter of mood, Moon says.
“Maybe he wants to have a nice vacation, to go and have a good time, but there’s this wedding on that Saturday, and ‘I have to put up the appearance that I have the energy to do this.’” And unfortunately, “Meeting expectations of the congregation is very difficult, and that leads to isolation.”
It’s in isolation that most people — not just pastors — seek out destructive behaviors. The difference is that the destructive behavior of spiritual leaders can perpetuate the dysfunction and can become detrimental to whole churches and their individual members.
The Pastoral Pedestal
Perhaps what might have started with the biblical standards listed in I Timothy 3 of how a pastor or elder should live — “well thought of, committed to his wife, cool and collected, accessible and hospitable … must handle his own affairs well” (The Message translation) — has become an additional burden of exhibiting perfection. Not only do members expect it, the pastor often believes it, despite the contradiction within his or her own humanity.
Regardless of its origins, being a pastor in most people’s minds means being the holiest person in the room at all times. Already set apart upon installation as pastor, he or she inevitably maintains that social distance throughout his or her pastorate.
And it doesn’t help that, historically, spiritual leaders were advised to avoid close friendships with parishioners to avoid the appearance of favoring some and marginalizing others. A major motivating factor for self-inflicted isolation may be an unwillingness to trust congregants — particularly those who make a point of getting too close too quickly.
This continues the persona of the pastor as king or queen, the person everyone wants to be or be around.
“We grew up in an era with the understanding that the pastor is infallible,” Moon says. “The perception of the pastor is elevated in such a way, he adds, that “a fall may be inevitable.”
Yet despite the responsibility that the congregation may bear in turning their leader into a celebrity, the onus is on the pastor not to believe the hype. Jones said it this way: “If we’re not careful, we become our own little gods — without a capital G — and we expect people to treat us this way.”
But if you’re being hoisted up on a throne Eddie Long-style and literally praised as royalty, how can you not buy in to the idea of being worshiped? How do you go from a sincere desire to serve God and His people to living to serve yourself?
“I think we by and large know what the Christian responsibility is, but it’s the lack of intentionality” that leads to disgrace at the highest level of a church, says the Rev. Kenneth Cole, a minister, theology instructor, and administrator at Washington Bible College in Lanham, Maryland.
Like Moon, Cole acknowledges that pastoring is a difficult job that never stops. And as much as it can build a congregation, it can weaken the minister. “Ministry takes on this burden,” Cole says, “and when you’re a weak man, you’re vulnerable more than ever to temptation.”
But that susceptibility might mask itself in a minister’s successes. Cole calls it flawed thinking to assume invincibility to sin based on ministerial authority. As proof, he cites the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness following God’s approval of His baptism. “After a spiritual high, Christ gives us an example that even when you preach and teach and God uses you in a special way, you are that much more vulnerable.”
Cole observes: “Some of the areas of the temptation lie in the individual areas of vulnerability.”
For example, an individual prone to overeating as a coping mechanism for stress might binge on every food available as a spiritual leader under the weight of several hundred people in a congregation. Of course, it’s usually much more serious than food.
“Demands and stresses would pile up,” Moon says, “and who knows if he uses his spiritual grounding at that moment?”
This time, it could be an extra dessert. Next time, maybe it’s infidelity.
For Jones, it was an affair with a married woman that led to his experimentation with powder cocaine and eventually crack. He writes in his book, “When I began experimenting with drugs in 1987, it was a time in my life when everything seemed to plunge into a downward spiral — an abyss of sin and shame. … I believe I had so many unresolved issues within my personal life that I grew tired of masking them behind a clergyman’s collar and title.”
Alison Gise Johnson
In recognizing the multiple factors at play at the origin of spiritual scandal, we must also weigh what’s considered “good” even among people striving to live holy but subject to the sin of humanity, says Alison Gise Johnson, a Christian ethicist who formerly served at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University.
“All of creation has been designed with potential and promise,” says Gise Johnson, “and that potential is only fulfilled in the context of healthy interdependent relationships. That, therefore, is our plumb line for ‘good.’”
Gise Johnson suggests that the isolation experienced by pastors whose parishioners view them as either “super holy” or “superstars” can work against the good intentions they initially bring to their ministries. Jones, Cole and Moon all acknowledge isolation as a key factor in what leads to a religious leader’s downfall.
“Ministers, like everyone of us,” Gise Johnson says, “will suffer emotional scars that when not addressed pervert one’s potential, causes wounds in others, and compromises the power and peace of being on one accord, whole and holy.”
It seems, though, that more often than not, scandals among pastors tend to involve sex. Moon ties this to pastoral isolation, not only with church members but often within the families of pastors and other religious leaders. “First, everyone is a sexual being,” he says. “[Sexual misconduct] is an outward expression of a need and desire to connect.”
Moon says that if a spiritual leader is still working out sexual identity in his or her own mind, those issues are likely to creep up somewhere in that person’s life. Unfortunately, it often comes out in a very public way.
Cole, however, says sexual indiscretion among ministers is sometimes less of a backslide and more of a backflip. “There is a whole lot of immorality in certain circles,” Cole says. “They live a life like it’s okay.”
He says it’s common for younger ministers to see their pastoral idols participate in blatantly sinful activity without consequence. That leads to an idea that similar activities are acceptable. “What’s happened is that they know better, but they’re imitating what they see.”
No one wants to admit that they’re struggling to do right because it feeds the idea of spiritual weakness that contradicts the super-holy image.
According to Bishop Jones, the tragedy is that “there seems to be no place, group, or board that one can go to and be completely honest or transparent; not for leaders in a church.”
Instead, said Jones, the church “often adds to or reiterates the guilt of the problem rather than taking on enough compassion to understand how to provide the comfort and support that is desperately needed.”
Beyond the Super-Pastor
As a society, we’re quick to cast blame, but ultimately who is responsible for pastoring the pastor?
Cole says that despite the culture of some churches, where the pastor is treated as king, spiritual leaders have to be committed to holy living. “We need to be intentional about being pure. We need to get back to church discipline, cleansing, restoration, and repentance.
“I just think by and large that pastors should recognize the roles they play; they’re not superheroes,” Cole says. “All that kind of attention draws people to us and not to Christ.” That realization lies in one’s intention and accountability, he says.
But Gise Johnson says that being accountable on a spiritual leader’s part requires something from the congregation, too. “Often, it is the loss of compassion that makes honesty about one’s struggles difficult,” she says. “Faith communities have to fight unrelentingly to maintain a spirit of compassion and be committed to ‘good.’”
For Moon, it goes beyond simply being good and lies more in being authentic in who they are, in their struggles and in coping with the stress of spiritual leadership. Fortunately, that is already beginning to take place, he says. “From the idea of a ‘super-pastor,’ I think the shift has occurred, particularly with younger clergy, that pastors are trying to be more real.”
Moon says there is hope in pastoral authenticity but that the greater redemption lies in the fabric of all churches. “The church itself has always had the resources within itself to restore people,” he says, noting that handling actual scandal would be best done through a denominational process rather than from within an individual congregation.
What a congregation can do, Gise Johnson says, is forgive. “Without apology and without hesitation, forgiveness has to be offered.”
But Gise Johnson is quick to add that this kind of forgiveness does have conditions.
“It’s the kind of forgiveness that demands that congregations then reorganize themselves to give the offender space away from the responsibilities of leading, so that everyone can begin healing.”
Road to Restoration
With news of his wife’s divorce filing in December, Eddie Long announced that he would take a break from his church to focus on his family, which includes three children. He returned to New Birth a few weeks later and preached the New Year’s Eve service. Now, in the tumultuous wake of his short-lived coronation, it’s unclear whether he’s at the end of troubles or the start of new ones.
Like Gise Johnson, Cole lauds a congregation’s ability to forgive in these kinds of situations. However, he says it can also serve as an Achilles’ heel, allowing spiritual leaders to return with the same structure and attitude that led to immorality in the first place.
While Cole advises a sabbatical from leadership responsibilities to help a pastor and his or her church heal, he’s reluctant to say that’s all that’s necessary. “It may it look like [scandalous behavior] is cool as long as you take a break.”
“We need to see more restoration,” he says, “but I don’t see it happening the way God intended.”
A REASON TO SMILE: (from left) Co-host Dorinda Clark-Cole, Kirk Franklin, and co-host Marvin Sapp rejoice and dance at the 2012 Stellar Awards. (Photo: Rick Diamond/Central City Productions & The FrontPage Firm)
Despite how battles often rage between the traditional music of hymns and choir-based anthems versus the upbeat, secular-sounding groove of contemporary worship songs, artists from all facets of gospel music declared it a truce last week as they gathered for the 27th Annual Stellar Awards.
Newcomer VaShawn Mitchell took home the most awards, including Artist, Male Vocalist, and Contemporary Male of the Year. His 2011 album, Triumphant, won for Praise and Worship CD of the Year.
“It’s a great feeling when you know it’s God who stamped his approval on your turn,” he said soon after the show’s taping. Mitchell, who has worked with several heavy hitters in the gospel industry prior to his more recent popularity, said he had come to previous Stellar Award shows as a seat filler, a person designated to sit in prominent seats that are temporarily empty. “It’s amazing to see the process from being the seat filler to winning six awards.” That’s not something a person can do by himself, Mitchell said. “Only God can do it.”
And only He gets the glory for what you accomplish, said another newcomer, Jessica Reedy. A season 2 finalist on BET’s Sunday Best, Reedy said the whole purpose of singing gospel music was God himself. “If you want self-gain and you think your talent is all that, you might not want to do this because God will humble you,” she said during the show. “And when He humbles you, it doesn’t feel good.”
In most cases, it was clear that most — though not all — of the artists exhibited humility despite their successes. Kirk Franklin, who has received 25 Stellars along with numerous other honors for his work, picked up four awards for CD of the Year, Contemporary CD of the Year, Producer of the Year, and Song of the Year. The latter award, though, he shared onstage with Darius Paulk, songwriter for the song that Mitchell made popular, “Nobody Greater.”
“Just at that moment, it just felt right because [“Nobody Greater”] had ministered to me so much,” Franklin said. “It was important to acknowledge just the great body of work that it is.”
Franklin said he was thankful to still be a part of the gospel music community and that his music, which won Song of the Year in 1993 for “Why We Sing,” has an impact today. “I’m just glad (the music is) still speaking to somebody dealing with something that somebody may be facing.”
GREAT HONOR: "Nobody Greater" singer VaShawn Mitchell receives the Artist of the Year trophy from CeCe Winans at the Stellar Awards. (Photo: Rick Diamond / Central City Productions & The FrontPage Firm)
Other winners included well-known pioneers of gospel music the Rance Allen Group, who received two Stellars for Traditional Group and Quartet of the Year. Traditional performances by Richard Smallwood and Issac Caree from Men of Standard, paying tribute to choirmaster John P. Kee, underscored the enduring popularity of choral gospel music. Smallwood, who later said he thought his gift for songwriting had dried up after his mother’s death in 2005, performed a song from his latest album, Promises.
Kee, who cried during renditions of his hit songs, including “Standing in the Need of Prayer” and “He’ll Welcome Me,” received the James Cleveland Lifetime Achievement Award for his three decades of contributions to the gospel music industry. “When we really realize what this music is about, tonight meant a whole lot,” Kee said. “It not only showed what we’ve accomplished, but that there’s more to accomplish.”
A variety of artists said they were working on new projects and music-related ventures due out this year. Among them were Mitchell, Karen Clark-Sheard, Kurt Carr, and Artist of the Year nominee Earnest Pugh. Marvin Sapp, who co-hosted the show with Dorinda Clark Cole, is working on a book entitled, I Win.
As host, Sapp said the show turned out well and he encouraged people to tune in in their respective markets. “I was very pleased with the looks of the show. Tell everybody and their mama they should watch it.”
Beginning January 21, the award show will air in more than 130 markets through February 26. The GMC network will broadcast the awards nationally on February 11. Check TheStellarAwards.com for airdates in your area.
2012 Stellar Award Winners
Artist of the Year
Song of the Year
“I Smile” | Kirk Franklin
Male Vocalist of the Year
Albertina Walker Female Vocalist of the Year
Group/Duo of the Year
New Artist of the Year
CD of the Year
Kirk Franklin | Hello Fear
Choir of the Year
Mississippi Mass Choir
Producer of the Year
Kirk Franklin for Hello Fear
Contemporary Group/Duo of the Year
Traditional Group/Duo of the Year
The Rance Allen Group
Contemporary Male of the Year
Traditional Male of the Year
Contemporary Female of the Year
Traditional Female of the Year
Contemporary CD of the Year
Kirk Franklin | Hello Fear
Traditional CD of the Year
Smokie Norful | How I Got Over: Songs that Carried Us
Urban Inspirational Single or Performance of the Year
VaShawn Mitchell | “Nobody Greater”
Music Video of the Year – Short Format
VaShawn Mitchell | “Nobody Greater” (VaShawn Mitchell)
Music Video of the Year – Long Format
Deitrick Haddon | Church on the Moon
Traditional Choir of the Year
Mississippi Mass Choir
Contemporary Choir of the Year
Shekinah Glory Ministry
Instrumental Gospel CD of the Year
Moses Tyson, Jr. | Music Remastered & Sacred Organ
Special Event CD of the Year
Bishop Paul Morton | Bishop Morton Celebrates 25 Years of Music
Rap, Hip Hop Gospel CD of the Year
Lecrae | Rehab: The Overdose
Children’s Project of the Year
Teen Pure N Heart | Pure N Heart Live
Quartet of the Year
The Rance Allen Group
Recorded Music Packaging of the Year
Martha Munizzi for Make It Loud (Martha Munizzi)
Praise and Worship CD of the Year
VaShawn Mitchell | Triumphant
Spoken Word CD of the Year
Selah | Look At You Loving Me
RADIO STATIONS OF THE YEAR
KJLH 102.3 FM – Los Angeles
WLOU 1350 AM – Louisville, Ken.
WHAL 95.7 FM/1460 AM – Memphis
KOKA 980 AM – Shreveport, La.
Internet Gospel Radio Station of the Year
GospelSynergy.com1radio.com, Chicago, IL
Gospel Announcer of the Year
John Hannah – WGRB, Inspiration 1390, Chicago, IL
SOULFUL CELEBRATION: North Carolina's Salvation and Deliverance Church Choir during their finale-winning performance at the Verizon 2011 "How Sweet the Sound" choir competition.
At any mention of Verizon’s popular How Sweet the Sound choir competition to director Kristian Herring, you might as well tune up the Hammond organ for him to cut a step in praise for his choir’s recent win in the 2011 competition.
Judged on presence, technical merit and originality and interpretation, Herring’s Salvation and Deliverance Choir from Tarboro, North Carolina, was crowned grand finale winner and “America’s Church Choir” Oct. 28 in Los Angeles. The group won after three rounds of competition against groups nationwide by performing a rearranged rendition of “Hallelujah” from “Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration,” complete with a few surprises.
See the video here:
We talked to Herring just days after the competition and a whole year after the Salvation and Deliverance choir participated in the 2010 How Sweet the Sound but lost in the finale.
UF: To get as close as you did last year and not win, some people would’ve been discouraged. What motivated you to try again?
Let me tell you what that was. I was one of the ones last year that said, “I won’t do this again.” I thought we should’ve won because of what we presented, but maybe every director feels this way. But at the end of the last year, the Lord gave me what to prepare for this year. I was like, “What the Lord has given me, we must do this.”
It’s as if the Lord himself took over my mind and said, “Here’s some music …” It was surely amazing, and it’s definitely not me — definitely His inspiration.
UF: Who did the choreography? The arrangement?
Some of that came from the initial vision. My plight has been to never bore the audience. I just tend to use a lot of choreography. I think it makes for a great interpretation. The choreography is another form of expression.
One thing I tried to stay away from: gospel singers tend to sing classically or as if they’re in a choral choir. They’ll clasp our hands at the abdomen level, and that just gets me. Where did that come from? I tried to stay away from things that were common.
When we sang, “The kingdom of this world,” the music was a go-go style, so we did a go-go style of movement.
UF: Also, showmanship aside, there seemed to be clear evidence of a spiritual sacrifice of worship and praise. How did you maintain your focus on who you sang about in the midst of performing and preparing to perform?
I think that’s what makes us unique: We are a church choir. A lot of time, a lot of community choirs don’t have that same spirit. We know how to tap into that otherworldly realm, that’s what I call it, otherworldly realm that a lot of people don’t understand. We pray together, we fast a lot together. Can I tell you, that day of the competition, we had a worship experience in our dressing room.
One person started a song, “We give you all the glory (we worship you our Lord. You are worthy to be praised)…” And another person, it was that person’s sister, picked it up, but she didn’t hear when it started. It blew our minds when we talked about it afterward. She took over her sister’s song and didn’t realize it. It was just beautiful.
We’re always focused spiritually, but that deep worship that fell was atypical. So it was like God’s stamp of approval even more.
UF: What did it do for you when host Donald Lawrence restarted the praise after your performance? (‘Cause, basically, it was clear y’all just went in.)
SWEET REWARDS: Salvation and Deliverance choir director Kristian Herring (right) accepts the championship prize check from How Sweet the Sound host Donald Lawrence.
From there, it was on like popcorn. That’s what we needed. I kept trying to say to the choir: “None of this stuff is new to us, we do this all the time.” We sing classical music, we sing a capella, we sing in different languages, we can “take a song to church” if we need to.
I was saying, “Forget the choreography, y’all. Go to church!” So when Donald came out … I had to come out of my jacket.
From my college days, I cannot wear a choir robe. I just feel stiff. I cannot conduct in a choir robe, but even with a jacket — I just snatched it off. From there, we went to work (praising God and dancing) like we do on Sunday morning.
UF: What are the perks of winning, beyond the $25,000 and opportunities to sing?
To be VIPs at the Stellar Awards and the Super Bowl: (Pause). That’s my response: silence. Those were some musical rests. That’s when I really knew this was colossal. It’s just too good to be true. I was always saying, “I’m gonna go to the Stellar Awards. I’m gonna go” and never made it. Now, we’re going and we’ll be VIPs.
UF: Everybody always tries to play it cool, but were you a little star struck singing in front of judges Marvin Sapp, Shirley Caesar — who is, like, gospel royalty — and Israel Houghton?
Mervyn Warren, who actually arranged “A Soulful Celebration,” you know, the hallelujah chorus. I was extra nervous when I saw him in the hallway; I didn’t know he was gonna be there. When I saw him, Mervyn Warren, I got so nervous.
When I saw (the judges) stand up during our performance, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
BACKSTAGE HALLELUJAH: The Salvation and Deliverance choir members rejoice upon learning of their victory.
UF: What advice — technical or spiritual — do you have for choirs who may never minister on a national stage? What encouragement do you have for them?
To find your niche. When you concentrate on giving God your best, He’ll breathe on whatever you’ve got to give. That’s it.
Before we went to How Sweet the Sound, we went and sang at a small church. Our choir could’ve filled the whole church. As a matter of fact, it did. But we sang the way we sing everywhere. The pastor of that church, she got up and said, “You all sang here like you sing at the national competition.”
I don’t care if it’s two people in the audience, if you concentrate on touching a life and changing a future, God has no choice but to extend your borders. He will do it because He can trust you.