PHOTO ESSAY: Inside Ypsi's often-overlooked gospel music community

Ypsilanti has always had a rich music scene. But local music writers and fans, focused on album releases and big shows in secular venues, often overlook all the amazing African-American gospel music that happens literally in their own backyard every Sunday morning.


If you live in the Ypsilanti area, there’s a church with a great gospel service within walking distance of your house. Ypsilanti’s gospel music scene is second only locally to its much larger neighbor, Detroit.


Gospel is one of America’s greatest cultural contributions. It gave birth to soul music and is deeply entwined in the evolution of jazz and blues in America. But that’s the academic view. On a personal level gospel music is about the music's undeniable power to heal. If you’ve had a bad day, month, or year, the joy of a gospel music service is going to lift your spirits.


At the center of gospel music is the power of the voice and the word to uplift. Given all the amazing singing, it makes it easy to overlook the fact that behind every great choir is a band with some of the best musicians you’ll hear anywhere. Don’t be surprised if one of those musicians was backing up the Temptations or playing at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge the night before.


Below you'll find our conversations with, and photographs of, several of Ypsilanti's fine gospel choirs. This story is in no way meant to be a complete list of all the gospel music in the Ypsilanti area. Consider it an overview of some great local talent in the city, which hopefully might inspire you to check out a service near you. It’s a beautiful manifestation of the community that these churches build in their neighborhoods every day.


Reach Church

401 S. Adams St., Ypsilanti

Pastor: Jason Robinson

Worship Leader: Sheryl Kelly

Reach Church Worship Leader Sheryl Kelly at a Sunday service.

On the Ground Ypsilanti: Tell us a little bit about the history of your church and your praise team.


Sheryl Kelly: Reach Church is a little over five years old. Pastor Jason Robinson is really intentional about (the church's mission statement: "The lost are found, the found are equipped, the equipped are sent"). There's really a value in demonstrating God's love in our lives. We are about connecting with people, loving on people, worshiping God together, and connecting with the community around us. We have a praise team that just happens to be all women. We rehearse once a week and lead the music during Sunday services at 9 and 10:30 a.m. We try to make sure we get a mix of songs and include songs that people can catch onto easily, especially people who have not gone to church before.


OtG: Why is gospel music important to you and to the church?


Sheryl Kelly: Sometimes people are better able to understand and to express themselves in music. The first thing we do after prayer every Sunday morning is sing. It's a call to come together in one accord in that moment and focus on God. We give ourselves permission to put ourselves aside and focus on something bigger than ourselves, and I think that's a beautiful thing we get from gospel music. When you have a conversation with people, they automatically identify a song that gets them through challenging times. Or if they're experiencing joy, they go to a particular song to amplify that feeling for them. Gospel music feeds us in a particular way. The Word of God is our bread, and you can get full on that.


Fresh Start Church

623 Oak St., Ypsilanti

Pastor: Gregory Cannon

Worship Leader: Andre Chatmon

Linda Reeves and Andre Chatmon at a Praise Team rehearsal at Fresh Start Church.

OtG: Tell us a little bit about the history of your church and your praise team.


Andre Chatmon: Our church is a fairly young church, about five years. I love this church. We do a lot of outreach. Right now we're serving as a warming center for the homeless. I joined the church about four years ago and became the worship leader about a year and a half ago. Our praise team is pretty small right now, maybe five people, but it fluctuates. We've had as many as 18 or 19 members. We have a mixed-generation church and we're still figuring out how to blend some of that old Southern gospel with some contemporary music and find a balance.


OtG: Why is gospel music important to you and to the church?


Andre Chatmon: I'm drawn to gospel music because I'm drawn to God. Leading the praise team is a way to blend my gifts with my spirituality and my feelings about God. I like to start off with something up-tempo to wake you up, get your attention to focus on us, and then lead more into focusing on God and the spirit. One of my favorite gospel songs to sing is "How He Loves Us." I feel like when someone sings in gospel, in order to translate to other people, the song has to touch you, and that's a song that gets me every time, so it touches the people as well.


Community Church of God

565 Jefferson St., Ypsilanti

Senior Pastor: Theron Kersey

Minister of Music: Dwight Fontenot

Dwight Fontenot leads the Men's Choir at Community Church of God.

OtG: Tell us a little bit about the history of your church and your choirs.


Dwight Fontenot: Our church is going to celebrate 95 years next year. We've been a staple on the south side of Ypsilanti for a long period of time. We work not just within the church but in the community in education, employment, and helping people find housing. We have a children's choir for ages 4 to 10, a youth choir for ages 11-18, a men's chorus, and an intergenerational choir.


OtG: Why is gospel music important to you and to the church?


Dwight Fontenot: Part of my responsibility as minister of music is to teach music that supports the pastor in his vision and allows the congregation to participate in worship actively. I'm a psychologist by training, not a music theorist, but I've studied music for a long time. Gospel music is one of the pillars of the church. It allows the congregation to find familiarity and inspiration in the words of the songs we sing. I have sat in churches where just the choir sings and the congregation sits and listens, but that's not the way black churches (do it). I think gospel music has always played a role in the black church in particular. It's established as much more of a collective body of believers, for the entire congregation (to participate in) the music. We also sing with other groups around the city, at places like Brown Chapel AME. Community Church of God is a great singing church … with people that love and desire to praise God in song.


Second Baptist Church

301 S. Hamilton, Ypsilanti

Pastor: George W. Waddles, Jr.

Minister of Music: Johnny Jordan

Pastor George Waddles, Jr. at a Christmas Concert at Second Baptist Church.

OtG: Tell us a little bit about the history of your church and your choirs.


George Waddles, Jr.: Our church was founded in 1860, and we've been at the corner of Hamilton and Catherine since the early 1900s. This particular (building) was built in 1972. I pastored down south before I came here. (Men's) quartet music was big, and I wasn't expecting it to be as big here, but when those brothers get up and start singing … they are amazingly popular.


Johnny Jordan: When I first got here, we had five choirs, and then they added a praise team. Today we have a children's choir, a male chorus, and our Generations choir that incorporates everyone.


OtG: Why is gospel music important to you and to the church?


Johnny Jordan: If we're not reaching anybody, we're not doing our job. In our performances, the emphasis is on singing from the heart. Let go and let God do his work, instead of focusing on "Am I hitting the right note?" It's more important for your heart to be right and to be singing for the right reasons. To me, that is way more important.


George Waddles: We both believe that music should be done well to the honor and glory of Christ. Gospel music is scripture that is sung. That is what makes it gospel, not just the notes or the arrangement, but the fact that it is the saving message of Jesus Christ set to music. Gospel music in America really comes out of freedom songs, spirituals, and anthems, in recognition that the Lord didn't intend for us to be slaves. He intended for us to be free, and there's freedom in Christ for all. That intellectual and yet subversive message is part of gospel. Gospel is a unique genre that comes out of a unique American experience.


Christian Love Fellowship

1601 Stamford Rd., Superior Township

Senior Pastor: Harold Wimberly

Worship team leader: Monica Hartman

Monica Hartman leading a worship team practice at Christian Love Fellowship.

OtG: Tell us a little bit about the history of your church and your worship team.


Monica Hartman: Our church is 38 years old, and I've been a part of the music ministry for 28 years. We've had a children and youth choir in the past. Our mass choir is on hiatus and being built. What we have right now is a worship team.


OtG: Why is gospel music important to you and to the church?


Monica Hartman: Gospel music can take you places where sometimes words cannot reach. A song can encourage me, and then I may read the Bible and it will enhance that. Sometimes music can take you out of a dark place. There was just a study that came out that said that dementia patients never lose their music. I am a hospice nurse, and sometimes my patients get to a place where they can't talk to me. But if I start singing, they can sing "Amazing Grace" with me, almost every word. I would like to see more collaboration with other groups, but in a world that's so busy, it's hard to get together. The Ypsilanti Ministerial Alliance used to have a choir. They'd get all these churches together and rehearse for two months and then sing at a one-week revival. It was a huge choir, and I was a director. I run into people who, to this day, can't forget that.


Brown Chapel AME

1043 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti

Pastor: Jerry Hatter

Music director: John Woods

Brown Chapel AME Music Director John Woods at a Friday service.

OtG: Tell us a little bit about the history of your church and your choirs.


Jerry Hatter: The church was established in 1843, and we just came through our 176th anniversary this year. We are an outreaching church. We try to bless those who are coming in with spiritual issues, with family issues, with homelessness, with food and clothing, and we provide a hand up as best we can. I've been here about 28 and a half years and seen a lot of changes. Over the years, our worship style has shifted, but gospel music has certainly been the cornerstone of all that. We have a basic church choir, a praise ministry choir ensemble, a children's choir, and our Mega Men Chorus. Our choirs perform as part of the service, but we usually have at least one concert a year, usually during Resurrection (Easter) week. It's quite a joyful thing.


OtG: Why is gospel music important to you and to the church?


Jerry Hatter: We certainly do value music in the service, because it brings an anticipation of the Word, inspiration, and a whole sense of joy in the worship. Whether it's gospel or praise and worship music, I tend to like songs that project the scriptures that speak to the troubles and the trials but yet with answers in the end. God can and God will. We're singing our way through and coming into the presence of God with the joy and excitement that brings.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Doug Coombe is Concentrate's managing photographer.
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