Clara Johnson lifted her hand in the air, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Her soulful voice filled the sanctuary of First Missionary Baptist Church.
“God is my protection. God is my all and all. God is my light in darkness. God is my all and all,” the 81-year-old Johnson slowly sang as members of the Decatur City Community Choir joined their voices in praise.
Started seven months ago, the Decatur City Community Choir formed as a way to use music to connect churches, congregations and generations across north Alabama.
“Music functions as a universal connector, a universal communicator,” the Rev. Daylan Woodall, senior pastor of First Missionary Baptist, said. “One of the motivations for starting the community choir was to create a space where people from all over the community, regardless of their denominational background, regardless of their age, have a place to gather.”
In black culture, both in and outside the church walls, music has played a seminal role, dating back centuries to the start of slavery in the United States.
“Music has been part of the shared experience since the first blacks came to this country as slaves. They spoke different languages and came from different cultures and different tribes, but the thing that brought them together in that shared suffering was music. They learned the same songs, the same patterns and the same meters,” Woodall said.
On the Underground Railroad, conductors used gospel music to communicate with runaway slaves fleeing for liberation. The spirituals, such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in the Water,” “Steal Away Home” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” included hidden messages about maps, navigational strategies and timing.
Through the Decatur City Community Choir, Woodall and choir director Timothy Bumpus hope to continue music’s legacy of connecting generations of worshippers.
“One of the goals of this church is to rebuild the fabric of our community, to reconcile and bring together the people of the church,” Woodall said. “When you look at the history of this church, when you look at the history of the African American church in general, it has always been the center for the community. Music is one way we can start to reconnect with one another.”
The choir, which ranges in age from 5 to 81, includes members from First Missionary Baptist, Let’s Make It Happen Church Ministries, Macedonia Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, Kings Memorial United Methodist Church, Asbury United Methodist Church and the Rock Family Worship Center.
In selecting songs, Bumpus, who serves as music minister at First Missionary Baptist, director of the Decatur Youth Enrichment choir and pastor at Let’s Make It Happen Church Ministries, mixes old gospel staples and spirituals with new hymns.
“I try to get a little mix to appeal to everyone, so we will sing some more modern songs,” he said. “At the same time, this church has a heritage of old. It’s good to go back and sing the songs of our past, the songs that our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents sang.”
Woodall pointed to the church’s oldest member, a former educator and community activist Etta Freeman, who is 102.
“Us that are in our 20s and 30s are singing the same songs she grew up singing. That’s what we mean when we say music spans the depths and differences between our generations,” Woodall said. “When we sing songs of our past, you feel an attachment to everyone who has ever sung it before and their situation. Music gives us a foundation.”
To recruit members, Bumpus posted flyers and issued a call on Facebook.
“We are here for one reason — to praise Jesus,” Bumpus said. “This is a choir for people who want to render their voice in praise. It is for people who can sing, can’t sing or want to learn to sing. This is an open-door opportunity. We want to do something great for our community.”
The choir, which performed at First Missionary Baptist and Worship for a Cause, a fundraiser for the cancer support group Journey of Faith, hopes to expand beyond the walls of the northwest Decatur church.
“The group started because we wanted a choir for the community. We would love to start community fellowship services on Sunday evenings where all the churches come together and the choir will sing. In the black church community, when we have events, like revivals and fellowship services, we have good music. This will be a choir you can always depend on,” Bumpus said.
Musicians and singers interested in joining the Decatur City Community Choir can contact Bumpus at email@example.com. The choir will sing next on March 8 at First Missionary Baptist, 233 Vine St. N.W., at 11 a.m. and on March 22 at Let’s Make It Happen Church Ministries, 37 Ministry Lane S.W., at 2 p.m. Pianist Randy Turner Jr. and drummer Jeremy Cobbs provide accompaniment for the choir.
“This choir is a living, breathing representation of the musical heritage that the community and the church have always embraced. Music will bring us together,” Woodall said.