Choirs, spoken word artists, a step team, a mime ministry, and dancers were all among the lineup of remarkable talent that took the stage Jan. 19 for Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) inaugural MLK Gospel Fest.
"We're not a denomination. We're just a group of people who love gospel music," said Elder Spencer Junious, representative for the Washtenaw County chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America (GMWA), during the event at EMU's Pease Auditorium.
He was speaking about GMWA but the sentiment applies to many performers at Gospel Fest, an event that brought together gospel acts from schools and churches across Washtenaw County to honor the spiritual legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
Slick roads after the first heavy snow of 2019 didn't stop about 400 people from showing up to the event. The gospel festival was just one of a dozen events scheduled between Jan. 17 and 22 as part of EMU's MLK Day Celebration, entitled We the People: Standing Against Injustice.
On the afternoon of the 19th, the Gospel Choir at EMU warmed up on stage as concertgoers filed into the auditorium, calling out to friends and family members also in attendance.
Despite snow, the show goes on
Caroline Sanders, EMU's assistant director of community relations and engagement, hosted the event, thanking the audience for turning out despite the weather. She welcomed attendees and introduced her co-host Da'Tuan Stinson, president of EMU's gospel choir, as well as three masters of ceremonies: EMU senior Honoré Washington, Second Baptist Church of Ann Arbor member Sonja Hughbanks, and EMU alum Keith Jason.
All ages were represented at the event, ranging from the youth choir from Spiritual Israel Church and Its Army and Ypsilanti Community Middle School's Dream step team to senior citizens singing in Brown Chapel AME Church's Mega Men Chorus.
The three-hour extravaganza kicked off with a multimedia performance by the GMWA Washtenaw Chapter and its liturgical dance team. Choir members dressed in black stood on stage, while dancers wearing patterned sashes danced in front of the stage, and support team members waved colorful flags in the aisles.
In a conversation before Gospel Fest, Jeanie Conner-Fontenot, a member of GMWA's Washtenaw chapter, said she hoped Gospel Fest would serve as a way to "bridge the gap between the African-American religious community and Eastern," paving the way for future collaboration and partnerships.
GMWA was followed by the Rev. Maymette Dolberry of Ypsilanti's Brown Chapel AME Church, giving a dramatic interpretation of Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech, originally delivered in 1851 at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio.
Next up was the Ypsilanti Community High School Choir, a show choir that incorporates choreography into its performances. The choir started off with an African folk song, followed by a rendition of "We Shall Overcome." The choir finished with a rendition of the gospel song "God is Trying to Tell You Something," popularized in the movie The Color Purple.
YCHS choir director Crystal Harding said she "pounced" on the opportunity to bring her choir to Gospel Fest. She impressed on students that it was an honor just to be asked to participate in a large show in a university auditorium that can seat 1,000 people.
"We only had about three weeks to prepare, so we picked what we already knew, and it just so happened we already had a spiritual as the grand finale at our Christmas concert," Harding said, referring to "God is Trying to Tell You Something."
After the high school choir came a spoken word piece by EMU student Sierra Powdhar, who goes by the stage name CES. Her act focused on how a young woman trying to live a godly life can still sometimes be judged harshly by her curves and her hemline.
Next up was the Gospel Choir at EMU, kicking off with "When All God's Children Get Together." They were followed by the youth choir from Spiritual Israel Church and Its Army, dressed in black and red and singing "Joy of My Salvation."
The first half of the program ended with a skit by Robbyn Byrd, performing under the name Ministry of Trickya. The performer played a homeless person who ministers to other homeless people and who exhorted the audience for getting complacent about King's legacy.
"Martin Luther King Jr. says, 'The time is always right to do what's right.' It's not too late for us to get it together," Byrd said.
An afternoon of musical ministries comes to a close
After a 10-minute intermission, the second half of the event started with a high-energy performance by Mime 2B Sanctified, a youth mime ministry of Second Baptist Church of Ann Arbor. Young performers in matching T-shirts, white face paint, and white gloves performed a choreographed routine to a prerecorded rendition of "Encourage Yourself," an uplifting gospel song with lyrics that exhort the listener to "encourage yourself in the Lord."
Brown Chapel's Mega Men Chorus was up next, singing a song of testimony. "I came from a poor family / We didn't have much / But the Lord's been good to me," the choir sang.
Performers returned to their seats after their time on stage was up to cheer on the next set of performers. Dozens of attendees danced and swayed in the aisles, calling out encouragement and clapping along to each number, and a member of GMWA rattled a tambourine from the audience during other performers' sets.
The Mega Men Chorus was followed by the Community Church of God Celebration Singers singing that they were "determined to walk with Jesus."
Next up was Ypsilanti Community Middle School's step team, Dream, using their feet, hands, and bodies to create a rhythm. Then the Rev. Kevin Sanders offered a poetic retelling of King's biography.
Toward the end of the second half, the Choir at EMU returned for an encore, as did the GMWA Washtenaw County mass choir.
GMWA ended the night on a high-energy note, singing the song "Total Praise," which takes its lyrics from Psalm 121 – "Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hills" – followed by the spiritual "This May Be the Last Time."
Sanders said the MLK celebration organizing committee would like to see Gospel Fest return as an annual event. On a personal level, she said she was pleased with the turnout despite the weather and one act having to pull out at the last moment.
"There were a number of barriers the last week before Gospel Fest," Sanders said. "As a faith-based person, I would say that there was a fight between the devil and the Lord, and the Lord won."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.