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Gospel playwright Llana Smith enjoys her Big Mama’s time


Choir Boy

Image by Shavar Ross via Flickr

About a decade ago I became reacquainted with a former University of Nebraska at Omaha adjunct professor of photography, Rudy Smith, who was an award-winning photojournalist with the Omaha World-Herald.  I was an abject failure as a photography student, but I have managed to fare somewhat better as a freelance writer-reporter.  When I began covering aspects of Omaha‘s African-American community with some consistency, Rudy was someone I reached out to as a source and guide.  We became friends along the way.  I still call on him from time to time to offer me perspective and leads.  I’ve gotten to know a bit of Rudy’s personal story, which includes coming out of poverty and making a life and career for himself as the first African-American employed in the Omaha World-Herald newsroom and agitating for social change on the UNO campus and in greater Omaha.

I have also come to know some members of his immediate family, including his wife Llana and their musical theater daughter Quiana or Q as she goes by professionally.  Llana is a sweet woman who has her own story of survival and strength.  She and and Rudy are devout Christians active in their church, Salem Baptist, where Llana continues a family legacy of writing-directing gospel dramas. She’s lately taken her craft outside Omaha as well.  I have tried getting this story published in print publications to no avail.  With no further adieu then, this is Llana’s story:

 

Gospel playwright Llana Smith enjoys her Big Mama’s time

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

When the spirit moves Llana Smith to write one of her gospel plays, she’s convinced she’s an instrument of the Lord in the burst of creative expression that follows. It’s her hand holding the pen and writing the words on a yellow note pad alright, but she believes a Higher Power guides her.

“I look at it as a gift. It’s not something I can just do. I’ve got to pray about it and kind of see where the Lord is leading me and then I can write,” said the former Llana Jones. “I’ll start writing and things just come. Without really praying about it I can write the messiest play you ever want to see.”

She said she can only be a vessel if she opens herself up “to be used.” It’s why she makes a distinction between an inspired gift and an innate talent. Her work, increasingly performed around the nation, is part of a legacy of faith and art that began with her late mother Pauline Beverly Jones Smith and that now extends to her daughter Quiana Smith.

The family’s long been a fixture at Salem Baptist Church in north Omaha. Pauline led the drama ministry program — writing-directing dramatic interpretations — before Llana succeeded her in the 1980s. For a time, their roles overlapped, with mom handling the adult drama programs and Llana the youth programs.

“My mother really was the one who started all this out,” Smith said. “She was gifted to do what she did and some of what she did she passed on to me.”

Married to photojournalist Rudy Smith, Llana and her mate’s three children grew up at Salem and she enlisted each to perform orations, sketches and songs. The youngest, Quiana, blossomed into a star vocalist/actress. She appeared on Broadway in a revival of Les Miserables. In 2004 Llana recruited Quiana, already a New York stage veteran by then, to take a featured role in an Easter production of her The Crucifixion: Through the Eyes of a Cross Maker at Salem.

Three generations of women expressing their faith. From one to the next to the other each has passed this gift on to her successor and grown it a bit more.

Pauline recognized it in Llana, who recalled her mother once remarked, “How do you come up with all this stuff? I could never have done that.” To which Llana replied, ‘Well, Mom, it just comes, it’s just a gift. You got it.” Pauline corrected her with, “No, I don’t have it like that. You really have the gift.”

“Them were some of the most important words she ever said to me,” Smith said.

Miss Pauline saw the calling in her granddaughter, too. “My mother would always say, ‘Quiana’s going to be the one to take this further — to take this higher.’ Well, sure enough, she has,” Smith said. “Quiana can write, she can direct, she can act and she can SING. She’s taken it all the way to New York. From my mother’s foundation all the way to what Quiana’s doing, it has just expanded to where we never could have imagined. It just went right on down the line.”

Whether writing a drama extracted from the gospels or lifted right from the streets, Smith is well-versed in the material and the territory. The conflict and redemption of gospel plays resonate with her own experience — from her chaotic childhood to the recent home invasion her family suffered.

Born in a Milford, Neb. home for young unwed mothers, Smith knew all about instability and poverty growing up in North O with her largely absentee, unemployed, single mom. Smith said years later Pauline admitted she wasn’t ready to be a mother then. For a long time Smith carried “a real resentment” about her childhood being stolen away. For example, she cared for her younger siblings while Pauline was off “running the streets.” “I did most of the cooking and cleaning and stuff,” Smith said. With so much on her shoulders she fared poorly in school.

She witnessed and endured physical abuse at the hands of her alcoholic step-father and discovered the man she thought was her daddy wasn’t at all. When her biological father entered her life she found out a school bully was actually her half-sister and a best friend was really her cousin.

It was only when the teenaged Llana married Rudy her mother did a “turnabout” and settled down, marrying a man with children she raised as her own. “She did a good job raising those kids. She became the church clerk. She was very well respected,” said Smith, who forgave her mother despite the abandonment she felt. “She ended up being my best friend. Nobody could have told me that.”

Until then, however, the only security Smith could count on was when her Aunt Annie and Uncle Bill gave her refuge or when she was at church. She’s sure what kept her from dropping out of school or getting hooked on drugs or turning tricks  — some of the very things that befell classmates of hers — was her faith.

“Oh, definitely, no question about it, I  could have went either way if it hadn’t really been for church.” she said. “It was the one basic foundation we had.”

In Rudy, she found a fellow believer. A few years older, he came from similar straits.

“I was poor and he was poor-poor,” she said. “We both knew we wanted more than what we had. We wanted out of this. We didn’t want it for our kids. To me, it was survival. I had to survive because I was looking at my sister and my brother and if they don’t have me well, then, sometimes they wouldn’t have nobody. I had to make it through. I never had any thought of giving up. I did wonder, Why me? But running away and leaving them, it never crossed my mind. We had to survive.”

Her personal journey gives her a real connection to the hard times and plaintive hopes that permeate black music and drama. She’s lived it. It’s why she feels a deep kinship with the black church and its tradition of using music and drama ministry to guide troubled souls from despair to joy.

Hilltop is a play she wrote about the driveby shootings and illicit drug activities plaguing the Hilltop-Pleasantview public housing project in Omaha. The drama looks at the real-life transformation some gangbangers made to leave it all behind.

Gospel plays use well-worn conventions, characters and situations to enact Biblical stories, to portray moments/figures in history or to examine modern social ills. Themes are interpreted through the prism of the black experience and the black church, lending the dramas an earthy yet moralistic tone. Even the more secular, contemporary allegories carry a scripturally-drawn message.

Not unlike an August Wilson play, you’ll find the hustler, the pimp, the addict, the loan shark, the Gs, the barber, the beauty salon operator, the mortician, the minister, the do-gooder, the gossip, the busy-body, the player, the slut, the gay guy, et cetera. Iconic settings are also popular. Smith’s Big Momma’s Prayer opens at a church, her These Walls Must Come Down switches between a beauty shop and a detail shop and her Against All Odds We Made It jumps back and forth from a nail shop to a hoops court.

The drama, typically infused with healthy doses of comedy, music, singing and dancing, revolves around the poor choices people make out of sheer willfulness. A breakup, an extramarital affair, a bad business investment, a drug habit or a resentment sets events in motion. There’s almost always a prodigal son or daughter that’s drifted away and become alienated from the family.

The wayward characters led astray come back into the fold of family and church only after some crucible. The end is almost always a celebration of their return, their atonement, their rebirth. It is affirmation raised to high praise and worship.

At the center of it all is the ubiquitous Big Mama figure who exists in many black families. This matriarch is the rock holding the entire works together.

“She’s just so real to a lot of us,” Smith said.

Aunt Annie was the Big Mama in Smith’s early life before her mother was finally ready to assume that role. Smith’s inherited the crown now.

If it all sounds familiar then it’s probably due to Tyler Perry, the actor-writer-director responsible for introducing Big Mama or Madea to white America through his popular plays and movies. His big screen successes are really just more sophisticated, secularized versions of the gospel plays that first made him a star. Where his plays originally found huge, albeit mostly black, audiences, his movies have found broad mainstream acceptance.

Madea is Perry’s signature character.

“When Madea talks she be talking stuff everybody can relate to,” Smith said. “Stuff that’s going on. Every day stuff. We can relate to any and everything she be saying. That character’s a trip. It’s the truth. One of my mother’s best friends was just like Madea. She smoked that cigarette, she talked from the corner of her mouth, she could cuss you out at the drop of a hat and she packed her knife in her bosom.”

Smith appreciates Perry’s groundbreaking work. “That is my idol…my icon. At the top of my list is to meet this man and to thank him for what he’s done,” she said. She also likes the fact “he attributes a lot of what he does to the Lord.”

Her own work shows gospel plays’ ever widening reach — with dramas produced at churches and at the Rose and Orpheum Theatres. She first made her mark with Black History Month presentations at Salem with actors portraying such figures as Medgar Evers, Harriet Tubman and Marian Anderson. Her mom once played Jean Pittman. A son played Martin Luther King Jr. She enjoys “bringing history to life.”

Her Easter-Christmas dramas grew ever grander. Much of that time she collaborated with Salem’s then-Minister of Music, Jay Terrell, and dance director, Shirley Terrell-Jordan. Smith’s recently stepped back from Salem to create plays outside Nebraska. That’s something not even her mother did, although Pauline’s Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God did tour the Midwest and South.

At the urging of Terrell, a Gospel Workshop of America presenter and gospel music composer now at Beulahland Bible Church in Macon, Ga., Smith’s taking her gift “outside the walls of the church.” In 2005 her Big Momma’s Prayer was scored and directed by Terrell for a production at a Macon dinner theater. The drama played to packed houses. A couple years later he provided the music for her These Walls, which Smith directed to overflow audiences at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas. In 2008 her Against All Odds was a hit at Oakridge Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., where she, Terrell-Jordan and Jay Terrell worked with some 175 teens in dance-music-drama workshops.

Against All Odds took on new meaning for Smith when she wrote and staged the drama in the aftermath of a home invasion in which an intruder bound and gagged her, Rudy and a foster-daughter. Rudy suffered a concussion. A suspect in the incident was recently arrested and brought up on charges.

Smith’s work with Terrell is another way she continues the path her mother began. Doretha Wade was Salem’s music director when Pauline did her drama thing there. The two women collaborated on Your Arms Are Too ShortThere’s a Stranger in Town and many other pieces. Wade brought the Salem Inspirational Choir its greatest triumph when she and gospel music legend Rev. James Cleveland directed the choir in recording the Grammy-nominated album My Arms Feel Noways Tired. Smith, an alto, sang in the choir, is on the album and went to the Grammys in L.A.

Terrell’s been a great encourager of Smith’s work and the two enjoy a collaboration similar to what Doretha and Pauline shared. “To see how Doretha and her worked to bring the music and the drama together was a big influence and, lo and behold, Jay and I have become the same,” she said.

Smith and Terrell have discussed holding gospel play workshops around the country. Meanwhile, she staged an elaborate production at Salem this past Easter. There’s talk of reviving a great big gospel show called Shout! that Llana wrote dramatic skits for and that packed The Rose Theatre. It’s all coming fast and furious for this Big Mama.

“This is like a whole new chapter in my life,” she said.

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Salem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord


The morning I went to interview then Salem Baptist Church Minister of Music Jay Terrell the first televised news reports of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were being delivered.  The uncertainty and fear of those events cast a strange heaviness over our meeting, but we proceeded nonetheless.  Later, I saw him lead the church’s acclaimed gospel choir in rehearsal and in performance.  My story here, which appeared in the Omaha Weekly, tries capturing the charisma and energy and spirit of that choir.  It’s the kind of writing challenge I much enjoy.  I hope reading the piece gives you some joy.

 

Voices of Victory Mass Choir of the Salem Baptist Church CDSalem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

The rafters tremble and the worshipers quake whenever the 110-member Salem Baptist Church mass choir, Voices of Victory, raises their collective voices to the heavens to sing, full-out, a soul-stirring, old-time religion gospel tune like Amazing Grace. Singing with gospel’s characteristic depth of feeling, the nationally renown touring and recording choir produces a big, rich, reverberating sound that, like a cascading wave, sweeps over the sanctuary, sends shivers down the spines of the faithful and spreads the Holy Spirit in every energized air particle in the place.

Voices of Victory is the signature choir among five resident choirs at Salem, 3131 Lake Street, a large, prestigious black church with a rich gospel tradition. Gospel is an integral part of the revival black church, whose energetic services are like choreographed musical dramas. The vibrant music is used as a resounding proclamation of faith and as a crusading tool for ministering to worshipers’ needs. It informs nearly every aspect of the proceedings, creating a mood in some spots and building towards a climax in others. It punctuates the minister’s charismatic spoken words. The music rises and falls, working folks into a fervor one moment and bringing them back down the next. With the robed choir positioned on a stand at the back of the altar, all eyes go to them. Their spirited singing, backed by idiomatic percussion, bass and keyboard, provides the impetus for the congregation’s praise and worship.

Besides being the heart of the black church, gospel is also a well-spring for other musical styles. Its influence can be heard in soul, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll. Many of today’s artists — from Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston — got their start singing traditional gospel. As the tracks between gospel and commercial music have blended over the years, crossover forms have emerged.

Through all the changes, Salem’s gospel foundation has endured. The church has been a fixture at the Gospel Music Workshop of America, the nation’s most important yearly gathering of gospel artists. Original compositions by past and present Salem music ministers are performed in churches nationwide. Salem choir recordings have garnered wide acclaim, including the 1978 Grammy-award nominated album I Don’t Feel Noways Tired (Savoy Records), which the legendary James Cleveland, often referred to as the father of gospel music, collaborated on.

Now, after a hiatus of some 20 years, Salem has revived its recording activity under Minister of Music Jay Terrell, completing a months-long live recording project that culminated in the October-release of the new CD, They That Wait (2001, Blueberry Records), featuring guest soloist Bruce Parham.

Referring to the CD as “a sleeper,” reviewer Stan North of GospelFlava magazine writes, “Solid material dominates this album, as amazingly, every song grabs attention and merits props for both ministry and musicality. On this version of the classic Jesus Saves (from Jay Terrell, Rudolph Stanfield and Todd Harrison), the power of Parham is complemented by some terrific choir parts. Parham appears on just the one song, and while it is certainly the high point of the project, there truly are several other peaks.”

According to Terrell, a co-producer on They That Wait and a composer-arranger for many of its songs, “Salem has always been at the forefront in gospel music. We’ve had a track record for years. Prior to my coming here 15 years ago, Salem and its music directors were always part of the workshop. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s every Baptist church in America was singing at least one or two songs off the No Ways Tired album. A lot of churches still sing the music that comes out of Salem.”

Formerly known as the Inspirational Choir, Voices is respected for its exuberance and excellence. Omaha Symphonic Chorus director Cina Crisara, who’s worked with the group, said, “I’m a huge fan of theirs. I think it’s probably the most sincere music that happens in this town in terms of their meaning what they say and their saying what they mean. It’s from the heart. They absolutely become that music. It’s a spirited group. They move every audience-congregation that they’re ever in front of. You can’t help, if you’re listening to them, to become completely engaged by them. And the choir members themselves are so warm and friendly, and they work so hard. They’re open to expanding their horizons and learning new things.”

 

 

 

 

President of the Omaha Mass Choir, Jesse R. Sawyer, said Voices stands out from other gospel choirs in town “because they have a style all of their own” and “a harmony that is outstanding. They really do. They have an excellent musical staff. Jay Terrell, their minister of music, is an excellent musician, conductor and teacher. And they’re a very versatile choir. It’s fantastic what that choir can do. They can arise to any occasion.”

Sawyer, who has closely followed Voices and other gospel choirs in the area, said Salem first reached prominence in the 1970s under the late Doretha Wade, whose father J.C. Wade was its longtime pastor. Sawyer said many of today’s leading Omaha gospel singers and musicians, including himself and Terrell, “came under” the Wades’ influence. “We all grew up in this gospel thing together. If you’re part of one choir, you’re part of another choir.”

Excellence is no accident at Salem. Terrell said the church invests heavily in music, maintaining a staff who write, arrange, perform and conduct much of the repertoire the choir presents. “Salem pays a lot of money here for music,” he said. “I would say about 40 percent of the music we do here is original music that I and my staff write. Most other churches are not blessed to have writers on staff.”

He said such an investment brings heavy expectations. “They don’t pay you to mess up. They’re a five-star church and the music needs to be at that level too. You can’t just kind of throw it together. I tell our choir it’s really important for us to work and to perfect our craft. Much is given and much is required.” Choir singer Billy Jordan said the expectations extend beyond singing. “We are really held in such high esteem that we know when we leave these four walls that people watch us. That holds us accountable and keeps us in line.”

Terrell feels the choir derives strength from the volunteers comprising it. He points to members’ “faithfulness, dedication, enthusiasm and spontaneity” and the fact that this choir, which is by-audition only, features the cream of the crop, vocally-speaking, around. “They don’t sound like a regular church choir. They sound like a professional community choir and what that means is you have picked voices, and when you have selected voices…it’s a different sound. And I think this particular choir does have a unique sound.”

He feels that sound results from the choir’s desire “to perfect the art,” adding, “That’s why they’re able to be a signature choir whose songs people sing all over the country.” That desire to get it right, Jordan said, comes in turn from Terrell, whom he describes as “a perfectionist,” adding, “He keeps us at it until we’re feeling what we’re singing. If we don’t feel what we’re singing, than we might as well stay home.” As Terrell said, qualifying for choir membership “isn’t so much, Can you sing?, as it is, Are you dedicated?”

Voices of Victory may indeed be the hardest working choir in town. In addition to singing twice every Sunday, at 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. worship services, the ensemble rehearses weekly and performs some 50 concerts annually, including statewide engagements for the Nebraska Arts Council and tour appearances outside the region.

Last summer, Voices performed in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. As a testament to its devotion and discipline, the choir recreates the same glorious sound whether singing at a Sunday morning service before a house-full of worshipers or at a week night rehearsal before mostly empty pews or at a concert hall before gospel devotees and neophytes.

A typical rehearsal finds Terrell working over and over on the smallest details of songs with, at first, sections of his choir and then the entire company until getting it right. “Worship him, you ought a worship him. In B-flat. One more time, go. Worship him, you oughta…Good job. Now, the altos. Sit tall, sit tall. I need some intensity. Right now, from the top. Worship…C’mon, put something into it. Help me out, help me out, that’s all I’m saying. Thank you. Now, sopranos. From the top…pull it, pull it, pull it. You’ve got to worship…One more time. We’ve got to get this for Sunday. C’mon. Whoa! Good job. Have a seat.”

Omaha Symphony Orchestra resident conductor Ernest Richardson marvels at the choir’s “flexibility” in quickly adapting to other musical styles. At, say, a symphony Holiday Fanfare concert, Voices may perform everything from patriotic tunes to hymns to gospel songs to operatic selections and do them with equal aplomb. Making that versatility all the more impressive is the fact the choir learns and performs music using rote memory rather than sheet music.

More than a powerful performing-recording musical ensemble or a means of punching-up Sunday liturgy, the choir is a vital instrument in Salem’s evangelical ministry that seeks to save, embolden or otherwise heal penitents and is a showcase vehicle for representing the church and its mission in the community. Choir members take their music ministry role seriously, too.

As veteran or “seasoned” choir member Betty Hughes said, “Our responsibility as a choir is to help draw the people into the service. People come to church with many different problems. They come looking for refuge or just looking. They may not even know what they’re looking for. We’re not there to put on a show. We’re the vehicle that leads them into the service. The music sets the tone for the service. It sets the background for the minister. That’s why the music always comes just before he comes. And there’s a certain way you have to bring that music in for people to be ready for The Word. Sometimes the music just flows perfectly and goes right into the message and enhances the message and helps drive that fire home to the hearts of people.”

Or, as choir member Michelle McCain put it, “It’s all about ministering to the soul — feeding the soul with what it needs through song.”

Inspiration is the essence of gospel. As McCain said, it’s all about stirring the soul, opening the heart and lightening the load. The music, which developed out of slave chants, and found refinement in the meter hymns, spirituals and call-and-response traditions of the Pentecostal black church, is at its core a call to Christ and an expression of thanksgiving.

 

 

 

 

“It’s good news,” Terrell said. “Gospel music means good news. It’s a celebration of life. It’s going to inspire you, it’s going to lift you up, it’s going to bring you joy. It’s a music that will basically give you goose bumps. It’s going to leave you with a smile on your face. And if it doesn’t do all that, then it’s not gospel music.”

Because gospel is vital and life-affirming, it leaves plenty of room for expressiveness and spontaneity. Terrell, who describes himself as “very open and unpredictable,” encourages his choir to move as the spirit moves them. “I would say our choir is really spontaneous because we allow the spirit to come in and take control. We can plan to do a song a certain way but after we get into it and see how it works, and with the Holy Spirit guiding us, that can then take it to a whole other place. I hate a choir that does not grab me, whether vocally, visually or with their delivery. I need all that in the choir. I need all that energy.”

It all starts with feeling. “You can’t sing it, if you don’t feel it,” Hughes said. “As my minister used to tell me, You can’t talk about a place that you haven’t been and you can’t talk about a person you haven’t met. And, so, you can’t sing gospel songs if you don’t feel them.” Billy Jordan said, “If you’re just singing and there’s no feeling there, you’re not ministering — you’re just doing something for show.” That feeling, according to Salem singers, is an individual’s faith-based response to the message in the music. “There’s a message in every song,” McCain said. “I can always go to that music and find a song that’s going to minister to me and to help me make it through whatever it is I’m going through. A song like What A Friend We Have in Jesus comforts me because it lets me know that, even when I feel like I don’t have any friends, I always have a friend in Jesus.”

Choir member Charnella Mims said, “When I’m in a song and I really feel that song, It takes you to a different level and you forget about all the people watching you or sitting around you. It’s just me and my Lord. For me, the tears come, and it’s not tears of sadness — it’s tears of joy, tears of understanding, tears that reinforce the fact I do believe that I am saved.”

Sharon Reed, another choir member, said, “Especially in this time of uncertainty and fear that we’re going through now the music kind of gives us peace inside. When I reflect on a song like Trust in the Lord I’m not fearing what’s going to happen next. I’m not worrying about it. I’m putting my trust in the Lord and I’m going on with my life.”

Reed said when the music becomes a personal expression of faith it resonates with a vigor unlike any other music. “You have to apply it to your own life and then it becomes meaningful to you and then once it’s meaningful to you that feeling is expressed in a sound that touches hearts because it’s already touched your heart.” She said it’s precisely when she and her fellow choir members give in to this heartfelt emotion that the songs develop a life of their own and the singers become vessels for whatever the songs impart.

Before moving people, Terrell said, “you’ve got to get people’s attention.” In a big church like Salem, where a single Sunday service draws 1,300 worshipers of all ages, that means performing a repertoire ranging from old-school gospel to contemporary gospel as a way of trying “to reach not only the grandmothers but the kids.”

He said gospel has undergone “major changes” in recent years with the advent of “crossover” gospel, a movement perhaps best epitomized by Kirk Franklin. “Now we have R&B gospel, jazz gospel, Latino gospel. I mean, choose any aspect of music and they have gospel in that same style now. Personally, I don’t like the flavor of real contemporary gospel music, but it has its place. Here, we do a little bit of everything. And if that means doing some rap or some rhythmic R&Bish songs or going back to some traditional songs for our seasoned people, then we do all of that to get everybody’s attention. We might even do some things where we’re clapping our hands, we’re dancing, we’re doing the whole nine yards.”

Terrell has little doubt his choir and the music it performs moves people. But he cautions his singers not to expect every audience to go into a charismatic fit. “I tell our people, Don’t judge your performance on the crowd’s response because different people respond in different ways. I mean, just because we clap and scream and holler over here doesn’t mean they’ll do the same at a Catholic church, where they’re more likely to sit there and cry on you and be in awe. Some songs will do that, too — they’ll just make you spellbound.”

Meanwhile, Terrell has big plans in store for his showcase choir. An east coast tour is scheduled next summer to New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. and a new CD recording project is in the works. The choir will also be featured at a Salem musical arts seminar next year that will explore, among other art forms, gospel music.

Terrell only wishes more Omaha radio stations would play gospel to provide a larger forum for the music. “There’s a big community of gospel music here. There’s talented singers and groups. But it’s hard to get the word out because, unfortunately, we don’t have gospel radio here. Our CD gets air play across the country, but not here. I wish I could hear it here. That would help.”

 

Ex-Prizefighter and Con Turned-Preacher Man Morris Jackson Spreads the Good News


Barbed tape at a prison

Image via Wikipedia

I knew the name Morris Jackson growing up because my older brother Dan was a boxing fan and I think he saw one of the grudge bouts between Jackson, the slick boxer, and Ron Stander, the Great White Hope slugger.  Jackson was undeniably the superior boxer but it was Stander not Jackson who got a title shot against Joe Frazier.  As the years went by I lost track of Jackson, only to read one day in the local daily about how he had gotten in trouble with the law and done time behind bars. There, he had a born again experience of such magnitude that after serving his time he went on to become a minister. His chosen ministry is poetic justice, too,  as he pastors to incarcerated men.  I finally got to meet and profile Jackson a few years ago. The story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Jackson and his transformation follows. My stories about Morris’ then-nemesis, Ron Stander, can also be found in this blog site, along with other stories about Omaha boxers, boxing coaches and gyms.  Like most writers, I am always down for a good boxing story. There are several yet in me that I wish to tell and I am sure that others will reveal themselves when I least expect it.

 

 

 

 

Ex-Prizefighter and Con Turned-Preacher Man Morris Jackson Spreads the Good News

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In his best three-piece, GQ-style suit, Morris Jackson looks like just another slick do-gooder to prisoners seeing him for the first time at the Douglas County Correctional Facility, where he’s chaplain with Good News Jail and Prison Ministry. But the large man soon separates himself from the pack when he tells them he used to be a prizefighter. Rattling off the famous names he met inside the ring — Ron Stander, Ernie Shavers, Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes — usually gets their attention. If not, what he says next, does. “My number is 30398.” That’s right, this preacher man did time. The former convict now stands on the other side of the cell as a born-again Christian and International Assemblies of God-ordained minister.

His 1975 armed robbery conviction sent him to the Nebraska Men’s Reformatory for a term of three to nine years. He served 22 months, plus seven more on work release. But being locked away wasn’t enough to reform Morris. His rebirth only happened years later, after squandering his freedom in a fast life leading to perdition. Referring to that transformation, one of several makeovers in his life, is enough to make even hardcore recidivists listen to his message of redemption.

“Then they hang on every word you’ve got to say, because they see a change. They really can’t believe you were there once yourself. Having Christ in your life really makes a big difference. Actually, it’s almost a visible presence — in your eyes, in your demeanor, in your voice, in your conversation — that people can notice,” said Jackson, whose prison ministry work dates back to 1992.

He first returned to the correctional system doing mission work for northwest Omaha’s Glad Tidings Church, where he still worships today. Reliving his incarceration experience behind the secured walls made him anxious.

“The first time I went, it was with fear and trembling because the last place I wanted to be in was anybody’s jail, hearing the doors close behind me,” he said.

To his relief, though, he sensed he had found a calling as an evangelist to cons.

“It was just as if I was right where I was supposed to be. The words were there. The life. The testimony. The word of God. My studies. The first time I did a service in the county jail there were 66 men present and 44 of those professed faith in Jesus Christ when given the opportunity. I said, ‘Man, I like this. I could do this all the time.’ Like I tell people, ‘Be careful what you say, because God is listening.’ I’m exactly where God wants me to be and I’m doing exactly what he wants me to do.”

Jackson’s had many occasions to reinvent himself, stemming back to his Texas childhood. As a youth, he lived with his family in an upper middle class part of Dallas. Then, he found out the man he thought was his father was actually his step-father. His real father was killed when Jackson was a year-old. Soon after this revelation, his mother and step-father split up and his world unraveled again. His mother got custody of him and his sister, but she could only afford a place in the projects. Already distraught over the divorce and the discovery he’d been lied to, he expressed his rage on the streets, where fighting was a rite of passage and survival mechanism in an area ruled by gangs.

“In Dallas, in the projects, you either had to be a good fighter or a fast runner, and I never could run too fast. I went from being a person who would see a fight coming and move away from it, to initiating fights. If you’d so much as look at me wrong, I’d haul off and hit you. I was getting into three-four fights a week. It was crazy. I guess I was an angry young man. Yet, I considered myself a meek person. I describe a meek person as a steel fist in a velvet glove. I would do everything I could to get out of a fight, but when I got cornered and I had to fight, I never lost one. Sometimes, I lost my temper and did something stupid.”

During this time, he lived a kind of double life. He was a star high school football and basketball player and a regular churchgoer, but also a notorious gangsta. His mother had grown up in the church before drifting away. When she found religion again, she made Morris and his sister attend services. He chafed at the fire-and-brimstone admonitions hollered down from the pulpit.

“The church I was raised in, you never heard a lot about grace. It was a lot of dos and donts and laws. You don’t smoke…don’t chew…don’t drink…don’t mess with girls. Of course, when I came of age where I could make my own decisions, there was no way I could live that kind of life when everybody else was having fun and I wasn’t doing anything.”

When his rebellion got to be too much, his mother kicked him out of the house. He went to live with his sister, stealing food to help support themselves.

His mother relocated to Omaha, where she had family, and she sent for her unrepentant son, hoping he’d find himself here. For a time, he did. He even prayed to lose his hair’s-edge temper, and it did leave him. When a neighbor training for the Golden Gloves prodded the strapping Jackson to join him at the old Swedish Auditorium, the newcomer did and soon found a home in the sport. Recognizing his talent, veteran handlers Harley Cooper, Leonard Hawkins, Ronnie Sutton, Don Slaughter and Yano DiGiacomo variously worked with him at the Foxhole Gym.

In his first amateur bout, he laid out cold his hulking opponent in a Lincoln smoker. His very next fight pitted him against the man who proved to be his main nemesis — Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander. From the late 1960s through the early 1970s, they met six times — four as amateurs and twice as pros — in highly competitive, well-attended bouts. “People came out to see us fight,” said Jackson. Their matches drew crowds of 6,000-7,000. Each took the measure of the other, although Stander, Omaha’s then-Great White Hope, usually came out on top. Stander took four of the contests, including one by KO, Morris won a decision and a sixth encounter ended in a controversial draw most felt should have been a Morris win.

“Every time I turned around, there was Morris. He was my biggest, toughest opponent,” Stander said.” “Yeah, we went at it quite a bit. We just happened to come along at the same time,” Jackson said.

The intense rivalry was tailor-made for fans as the fighters embodied the classic adage that styles make fights. Jackson was the boxer, Stander the puncher. Jackson relied on his feet. Stander, on his brawn. One was black, the other white. In the era of militant Muhammad Ali, Jackson was the closest thing Omaha had to a righteous Brother bringing down The Man. Stander, meanwhile, was a real-life Rocky who got his shot at the title in a 1972 bout with champ Joe Frazier.

 

 

Morris Jackson in his fighting days

 

 

“I don’t know if I patterned myself after Ali, but I was somewhat like him because I would stick, move, think, box. I was light on my feet. But I wasn’t the type of person who talked a lot. I didn’t have any gimmicks or shuffles. I just got in and took care of business,” Jackson said.

The two long retired fighters reside in Omaha, but rarely mix. While their rivalry was too close for them to ever be friends outside the ring during their fighting days, they’ve always maintained the mutual respect warriors have for each other.

Stander is well aware of the transformation Jackson has undergone and admires his old foe for it. “He turned himself around. Yeah, he went from bad to good in a big way. God blessed him. God grabbed Morris by the neck and said, ‘Come over to me.’ Yeah, he’s a beautiful man now, I’ll tell ya.”

 

Ron Stander, known as the Butcher, went face to fist with Joe Frazier in Omaha in 1972. CreditUnited Press International

 

 

 

By most measures, Stander’s career surpassed Jackson’s, whose early promise ended in missed chances, bad matches, poor management, and too small takes. The familiar litany of a club fighter who never got his shot the way Stander did. Former Omaha matchmaker Tom Lovgren feels Jackson could have gone farther. Still, the fighter was once in line to join promoter Don King’s stable. He was a main eventer in Omaha’s last Golden Era of boxing. A two-time Midwest Golden Gloves champion, he compiled a 28-5-1 career pro record, including a KO of then-British Commonwealth champion Dan McALinden, a win Lovgren rates as the top by any Omaha boxer in the ‘70s. Jackson was also a sparring partner for ring legends Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers, Joe Bugner and future champ Larry Holmes.

But then the good times ended. His run-in with the law came during a dry spell when the journeyman “couldn’t get any fights.” As he tells it, “I started running with some old friends who’d been in the joint and I was influenced by them to make some quick money in the hold up a Shaver’s food mart.” Once nabbed, he was almost grateful, he said, “because eventually somebody was going to get hurt.”

His crime spree was brief but telling and foreshadowed a later descent that threatened to land him back in jail or kill him.

While serving his stretch, Jackson studied Islam and became a Black Muslim. His dalliance with spirituality was short-lived, however. After getting out, he tried resurrecting his career but after three fights called it quits. Like many an ex-pug, he had few prospects beyond the ring and, so, he grabbed the first thing offered — bouncing at strip clubs.

“I got caught up in this lifestyle. I got to smoking marijuana and doing all the things that go with that lifestyle. My wife was working days and I was bouncing nights. We hardly ever saw each other. I was just kind of in limbo and that led to the brawls and the drinking and the drugs,” he said.

 

Morris Jackson today

 

He never imagined being saved. “No. If someone would have told me, I would have said, ‘Yeah, right, you’re crazy man. Give me some of what you’re smoking.’”  It was his mother who finally pulled him from the brink and back into the fold of the church. In March 1983 she staged a one-woman intervention with her wayward son. “My mother came over to my house to talk to me about what my life was like and how Christ was calling me. She shared the gospel with me in such a way as I’d never heard it before. She spoke of God’s grace. How He loves you. How He has a purpose and a plan for your life. And how it’s up to you to accept and follow the path God has for you.” What came next can only be called salvation.

“I had this sense and I heard this voice that said. ‘The line is drawn in the sand and if you don’t make the decision now, you’ll never get another chance.’ I know just as sure as I’m sitting here today that if I wouldn’t have accepted Jesus Christ in my life, I’d be gone. I’d be dead. My mother prayed. We prayed. And the next day I went to church with her.”

Church bible classes led to college religious studies and, ultimately, his ordination. His first ministry was on the streets of north Omaha. Then came the prison gig. In the mid-’90s, then-Nebraska Governor Ben Nelson granted him a full pardon.

Now, he can’t imagine going back to that old life, although he keeps memories of it nearby as a reminder of where he came from. “There’s a peace in my life. Serenity. Stability. Certainty. It makes a difference when you come from darkness to light,” he said. “I know what my life used to be like. The turmoil, the uncertainty. Spinning my wheels. Living for the weekends. No purpose.”

Living his faith, which he loudly proclaims from the inscription above his home’s front door to the message on his answering machine, is his way of telling the good news. As he tells prisoners: “You’ve got to believe in something.” He’s seen enough cons turn their lives around to know his story is not an aberration.

The proud old fighter sees his ministry as his new battleground, only instead of knocking heads, he’s about saving souls and staying straight. “Most of my teaching is biblical principles applied to our lives. I’m still a warrior. Only now when I put on my armor and go to war every day, I don’t feel turmoil. My wars are fought in my prayer closet. I pray before I do anything,” he said.

But once a fighter, always a fighter. He repeated something Ron Stander said: “If they told us to lace ‘em up again, we’d go at it.” The Preacher versus the Butcher. Now wouldn’t that be a card?

 

A matter of faith: Beth Katz and Project Interfaith find bridges to religious beliefs

May 31, 2010 1 comment

Several of my most recent posts, including this one, emphasize a social justice theme. Beth Katz and her Project Interfaith bridge the divide that often separates different faith communities.  It is just the kind of effort there needs to be more of in a society that preaches tolerance but that often doesn’t practice it.  Katz and Project Interfaith bring people from different traditions together at the table in an attempt to better understand and appreciate each other and their differences.  In the divisiveness of the immigration debate and in a climate when negative attitudes still persist about Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Fundamentalists, right on down the line, anything that people can do to promote harmony and unity is to be applauded.  My story about Katz and her project originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com), which recently stopped publishing. Katz is active in an initiative here gaining national attention called Project Interfaith, a coalition of Jews, Episcopalians, and Muslims attempting to build consensus for an envisioned tri-faith campus.

 

A matter of faith, Beth Katz and Project Interfaith find bridges to religious beliefs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

 

 

Growing up in predominantly Catholic and WASP Omaha, Beth Katz was often the lone Jew in the room. That meant fielding questions about her faith. This sense of Otherness, combined with her natural curiosity, led the Central High grad to ask Christians about their traditions.

It all came to a head at Jesuit Creighton University in the early 2000s. She assumed living among Christians her whole life told her all she needed to know about Christianity. Then she found out different. “I might know something about Christianity in a cultural sense,” she said, “but I have a very shallow understanding of what it means in a spiritual sense. Don’t confuse familiarity with knowledge — they’re not the same thing.” When she had no answers to several questions friends asked about Judaism, she said, “I realized just how shallow my own knowledge of my faith was and it made me go back and investigate some of these issues. That was a very spiritual experience for me.”

When a required theology class glossed over Judaism and other non-Christian world religions, she raised the issue about inclusion.

“I got active on campus to try and change some of the curriculum requirements,” she said. That effort led her to CU’s Campus Ministry, whose then-director, Father Bert Thelen, “really wanted to create an environment where all students felt welcomed and felt their spiritual needs were met,” she said. “He encouraged us to become involved. The Muslim Student Association had just formed and we were just forming a Jewish Student Association. We created a multi-faith student group and started holding dialogues and different programs on campus that would engage students about issues of faith and identity.”

Fast forward to 2005. Katz, fresh from graduate studies in social work, public policy and community organizing at the University of Michigan, came home to do “something I felt called to do.” That was founding Project Interfaith, a resource and facilitator for interfaith and religious diversity issues. The nonprofit, which she directs with the aid of a part-time paid assistant and volunteers, is an extension of the mission she began at Creighton. More deeply, it’s an expression of her faith.

“I am such a product of Judaism. It’s really shaped who I am,” she said. “Community has always been so important to me. It’s not just about you, you have to think of yourself in the context of others.”

She felt so strongly about community she passed on a federal fellowship in the executive branch to, instead, create “a sustainable interfaith program for Omaha. I felt like the time was right and this was something that was needed,” she said. She laid the groundwork by talking to a cross-section of folks. Finding only “scattered, sporadic, grassroots interfaith initiatives, she saw an opportunity for “a formal, multi-pronged, comprehensive approach to engaging people on these issues.”

“I saw a hunger in our community to have these sorts of interactions, conversations, resources,” she said. “I think part of it is people don’t know where to go, and we can help connect people…I feel like we’re really doing something that’s meaningful, that’s making the community better.”

Project Interfaith is an affiliate of the Anti-Defamation League Plains States Regional Office. Reflecting the diversity Katz espouses she’s formed an advisory council and board of directors made up of representatives from 13 different religious communities and two universities. Religious tensions would have made such cooperation difficult in the not so distant past. The modern interfaith movement, Katz said, began in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council issued Nostra Aetate, a document reconciling strained Catholic-Jewish relations, affirming shared values-histories and encouraging outreach and dialogue between faith groups.

Katz, who by virtue of not being a religious studies scholar and not aligning her organization with any one group avoids even the hint of favoritism, diplomatically brings parties to the table for discussion.

“We want to broker relationships. We like to partner with a lot of different organizations so that we can bring as many people into the conversation as possible,” she said. “I just want to…get people learning and talking and ultimately creating relationships. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”

She also works to include “people across the ideological spectrum.” Said Katz, “I am so sick of how polarized things are. We want to offer an opportunity to transcend all that.”

An array of Project Interfaith programs and activities promote understanding and reflect her belief “interfaith work is multidimensional — it’s not just about sitting in a circle talking about your faith. We want to give people a lot of different ways to be involved…”

 

 

 

 

Community Conversations bring nationally known speakers to discuss interfaith issues. Vanderbilt University-based author and scholar Amy-Jill Levine presented a January 8 address entitled, “From the Academy to the Pews: What Clergy, Lay Leaders, Scholars and Community Members Need to Know About the Origins, Evolutions and Future of Jewish-Christian Relations.” Coming up on April 3 is a presentation by Krista Tippett, host of National Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith.

Perodic Jewish-Christian-Muslim Study Circles aim to foster an appreciation and respect for both the commonalities and differences of these faith traditions.

The annual Interfaith Architectural Tour on March 9 visits the Hindu Temple and St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church. The theme is the role icons and imagery play in shaping art and architecture in religious communities.

She organized a conference on interfaith dialogue in a post-9/11 world.

Katz plans reprising the Interfaith Storytelling Festival co-sponsored with the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Rose Theatre and the Omaha Children’s Museum in 2006. The event featured Jewish, Christian and Muslim storytellers and various art activities for youths and families. She’d like to expand the number of storytellers and faith traditions represented. An interfaith film festival is a possibility.

“I love to use the arts as a way to teach about religious diversity, as a vehicle for people to express and explore their faith,” said Katz.

In collaboration with the Cathedral Arts Project, a fall exhibition called Images of Faith: Private and Public Rituals is planned around the five major world religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. A collection of sacred objects from each will be displayed. Photo essays will examine the role ritual plays in these communities. A Web-based component will invite the public to submit images for posting online. A curriculum is being formulated with lesson plans built around the exhibit that teachers can implement in schools.

Project Interfaith’s formal educational side offers religious diversity trainings to educators, health care providers and nonprofit agency workers. The goal of these workshops is to help participants be sensitive to the religious orientations of the constituencies they serve. She said professionals want this training because “they recognize how religiously diverse our population is and they’re struggling to make sure they’re meeting the needs” of everyone.

“We do identity exercises where people look at their own attitudes about religion,” Katz said. “We develop a common language for talking about religious diversity issues. We bring in a legal expert to look at the legal parameters of dealing with religion in public schools.”

She said schools find the trainings useful because educators are given “concrete ways to teach about religion in public schools that are academic, neutral, constitutional and totally appropriate. We also give some guidance on what sort of accommodations are appropriate for students that do not impinge on their First Amendment right for religious freedom.”

The same considerations, she said, apply to students who do not affiliate themselves with any religion or who identify as atheist.

Katz, who hopes Project Interfaith can have an impact beyond Omaha, said schools in Wichita, Kan. and Lincoln, Neb. “have invited us to offer our religious diversity training for educators.” She added that an interfaith alliance in Des Moines, Iowa “wants to meet with us and learn more about what we do.”

She said Project Interfaith is doing “ground breaking work” that “can translate to other communities — locally, nationally, even potentially beyond that. We try to think outside the box. We deconstruct the box. Anybody, really, is a potential partner. I know a lot of businesses pilot products in Omaha — it’s a great test market — and I think we can be a test market for innovative interfaith work.”

Amy-Jill Levine has high praise for what Project Interfaith does. She said the January program she spoke at “demonstrated Omaha’s triumph over the religious and cultural battles that beset American society.”

Katz said Omaha’s well-suited for interfaith action because its individual faith communities don’t split “along ideological and ethnic lines” as they do elsewhere.

All Project Interfaith programs, she said, invite discussion. “It’s in a safe environment where people can be honest and we can get to the heart of some of the stereotypes and myths that are out there and break those down. I really feel honored at the amount of trust people give me and Project Interfaith because it takes a lot of guts to be honest and open. Faith is so personal, you know, and so fundamental to how people understand themselves in the world.”

One myth she said Project Interfaith tries overturning “is that we all have to agree or that at the end of the day we’re all the same. We don’t have to agree on everything but in order to get along we have to learn something about each other. Hopefully that understanding will evolve into respect. It’s important people appreciate their commonalities and recognize their similar values, but also explore and understand the differences that are so interesting and that create such rich and fertile conversations.”

She said another myth is that interfaith work weakens one’s own faith identity.

“My own personal experience is that it only tends to strengthen your identity,” she said, “because it’s provocative. As you’re asking questions of the other you’re beginning to reflect and understand and explore your own faith. I think it makes you want to go deeper and learn more about your own faith tradition.”

Two trips in 2007 affirmed this for her. Apropos for someone dedicated to interfaith exchanges, she made her first trip to Israel with a group of Christians. Then she went to the Vatican with a Catholic priest, a brother and a theology teacher as Omaha’s representatives at a conference on Catholic-Jewish relations.

She said each experience reinforced for her the importance of interfaith action. She came away with a better sense for the progress that’s been made, the challenges that persist and the path to take from this point forward.

“I love what I do. I feel inspired by the work and by the people I meet doing it.”

Gimme Shelter: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Offers a Haven for Searchers

May 31, 2010 5 comments

Sacred Heart Catholic Church

Image by bluekdesign via Flickr

I had long been aware of the rousing 10:30 a.m. Sunday service at a certain North Omaha Catholic church, where gospel music is a main attraction owing to a congregation that includes a significant African American presence and a neighborhood that is predominantly black.  The sign of peace greeting there is also famous for how it brings people out of their pews for open displays of welcome and affection — a marked departure from the usual repressed Catholic ritual. The dichotomy of Sacred Heart Catholic Church is that most of its members and visitors are white, almost all of whom live far from the church’s inner city locale, which has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the nation.  When I finally got around to attending the dynamic service there, I was not disappointed.  The gospel choir and band make a powerful sound and parishioners go out of their way to welcome newcomers.  The story I wrote about this place and its people originally appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com).

Gimme Shelter: Sacred Heart Catholic Church Offers a Haven for Searchers

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of this story appeared in the City Weekly (www.omahacityweekly.com)

Something’s happening in Omaha’s African American inner city. Most any day on the Sacred Heart Catholic Church campus at 22nd and Binney a diverse mix of folks gets together for Mass, community service projects, school activities, Rite of Christian Initiation classes, Bible study sessions, et cetera.

Black or white, straight or gay, most Sacred Heart members live far outside this old working class area beset by poverty, unemployment and crime. They gather from all over — the suburbs, mid-town, out-of-town. Some are disaffected Catholics. Others are of different faiths. All come in search of something. The unconditional  embrace and dynamic liturgy they find lead many to make it their spiritual home.

The blended crowds qualify it as Omaha’s most integrated Catholic church. Sacred Heart’s 800 members include about 150 blacks, the majority of whom attend Saturday night service. Sunday mornings at 10:30 the 117-year-old Gothic Revival church fills for a justly famous, popular, rollicking rite that’s livelier and longer than the typical stodgy, albeit sublime, Mass. Mostly whites attend. Some blacks, too.

The SRO Sunday celebration features some nontraditional, by Catholic standards, elements, headlined by the gospel music-inspired Freedom Choir and band. We’re talking raise-the-rafters vocals and instrumentals by stand-up-and-shout, get-justified-with-the-Lord performers who hold their own with any Baptist ensemble. They’ve got it all, minus the robes — big voices, pleasing harmonies, scorching solos, hot bass lines, slamming percussive riffs and rousing piano jags.

The mostly white choir defies expectations. They know how to get down though.

“I grew up as a Baptist. I’ve been around some very spiritual choirs and I would say this one would pretty much give them a run for their money,” said Shedrick Triplett.

Frank Allen describes it as “the most stepped-up Catholic service you’ll see. It’s not this solemn, stagnant, boring service.” Fellow parishioner Johnnie Shaw said, “This is a one of a kind place, not just for Omaha. There’s nothing like Sacred Heart. It’s truly off the beaten path. Its not the traditional Simon-Says Catholic church. It’s a whole lot more than that.” “I think it’s a breath of fresh air. They do things a little differently there,” Triplett said.

Jim Chambers knew he’d found something different the first time he stepped foot in Sacred Heart and heard those sounds. “It wasn’t all that Ave Maria-type stuff. The music was more upbeat.”

Gospel’s a Protestant, not a Catholic thing. The only Catholic churches with a gospel tradition are those with significant black membership. As Omaha’s historic home to black Catholics, St. Benedict has gospel music-rich liturgies.

Music makes Sacred Heart a destination. The congregation’s hospitality, including official greeters, keeps folks coming back. The pews fill a half hour before the service, so get there early. Unlike the silence before most Masses, there’s a din at Sacred Heart. Performers jam as worshipers file in. The crowd interacts. It all feeds what Allen calls “a concert-style atmosphere.”

It becomes one live-wire church, buzzing with a crazy energy from all the praying, clapping, dancing, singing and music making. Call it the Holy Spirit.

“You feel that electricity in the air. You feel that this isn’t just a ho-hum service,” Allen said. “It’s less formal or stuffy, it’s more fun, it’s more lively. You feel you can be a more active participant and not just an observer,” said Anne Chambers.

The hymns offer a call to surrender and action — to walk humbly with God and to serve the least among us. The Our Father’s sung in a hand-holding, communal style that ends with interlinked arms raised overhead. The sign of peace is an over-the-top love-fest with folks spilling out of the pews to exchange handshakes, hugs, kisses, well-wishes. It lasts 10 minutes.

Pastor Tom Fangman admits “it’s not for everybody. Some think it’s too much, too loud, too expressive.” Omaha’s archbishop is reportedly displeased with some of what goes on there, but Fangman insists it’s all orthodox. So does Liz Hruska, who said “it isn’t a fringe Catholic church. It’s just our worship style is a little more emotional and expressive…” She comes all the way from Lincoln to do it. One member drives in from South Dakota.

They’ve been flocking there to worship this way since the 1980s. Then pastor Jim Scholz took over an integrated parish in decline, its ranks thinned by white flight. Mass attendance was abysmal. Gospel already had a hold there, thanks to Father Tom Furlong introducing it in the ‘late ’60s-early ’70s, but not like it does today.

“It was a very conservative, quiet little neighborhood parish,” Scholz said. “Most of the members were longtime parishioners, many of them quite elderly. Physically, the place was dilapidated. I felt we had to do something dramatic.”

Scholz got the idea for spirited, gospel music-based “uplifting liturgies” from an inner city parishes conference in Detroit. He was impressed how churches in similar circumstances turned things around with the help of gospel. He saw the music as a homage to black heritage and a magnet for new members.

“What the music said was we are reaching out to your traditions and we’re trying to make you feel comfortable to come to our church,” he said.

He found a first-rate choir director in Glenn Burleigh, under whom the church’s full-blown entry into gospel began at the Saturday night Mass. The 10:30 Sunday liturgy remained ultra-traditional and sparsely attended.

“Six months later we’d gone from a Saturday service with 30 to 35 people, with hardly any music, to standing in the aisles full with a wonderful ensemble,” Scholz said. “Glenn wrote special music almost weekly for the service. People started to come out of the woodwork once the word got out. It was such a refreshing thing.

“We didn’t grow exponentially in black membership, although we did grow some. What we grew in was white membership.”

Sacred Heart’s black members appreciated the gospel emphasis. “As African Americans what sets us apart as Catholics is we were always exposed to gospel music. At home Mahalia Jackson was required listening on Sundays,” Lynette McCowen said. She added that while gospel “was already a great part of Sacred Heart, it just came to a different level (under Burleigh).”

When Burleigh was hired away by a mega-Baptist church in Houston Scholz tapped his assistant, William Tate, to take over. Tate still leads the gospel choir on Saturdays. Scholz recruited a new choir director, Mary Kay Mueller, to energize the 10:30 Sunday service. For inspiration, he referred her to The Blues Brothers.

So it came to pass the movie’s Triple Rock Church became a model for the expressive Sacred Heart liturgy. No, Scholz wasn’t interested in “people doing somersaults down the front aisle,” he said. But he wanted “to come up with that spirit.” Unbridled. Joyous. Free. “We really need to come alive here,” he told Mueller. Thus, the Freedom Choir was born.

Post-Vatican II liturgies tended to be, well, dull. “When I started there Catholic churches were playing it really safe. Non-denominational churches were full of people who left as a result. A lot of the heart had gone out of the liturgy,” Mueller said. “It was more cerebral than emotional…more head than heart. Father Jim and I were in full agreement that we wanted a joyful celebration.”

By its very nature, she said, gospel taps deep stirrings. “The goal is never to sing it the same way twice because you are never the same person…When you bring your heart and soul to a song it’s fresh and new every time.”

“I think that music cuts right to the heart of things. It’s immediate, it’s arresting, it’s accessible, it’s gut wrenching. I’m trying to move the choir more into being both quiet and big and brassy and loud, but still in a very soulful way,” said Jim Boggess, who succeeded Mueller in ‘99.

The metamorphosis that begat the 10:30 phenomenon happened gradually. A conga drum, a saxophone, a tambourine were incorporated. “No Catholic churches in this area were using percussion then,” Mueller said. “We had to take some risks.”

Among the risks was Scholz extending an open invitation for anyone to worship there. The service evolved into what one member calls “a free-for-all,” or as Scholz likes to say, “a razz-ma-tazz sort of thing.” This vivaciousness includes the marathon, effusive peace greeting — what Shaw calls “a great social celebration.” The fellowship continues after Mass. Substance is behind the razz-ma-tazz.

“I think what grabbed me when I first started going there is that everybody that walks in the door is made to feel important and welcome,” Judy Haney said, “no matter where they’re from, what stage of life they’re at, what they look like, what kind of lifestyle they lead. Gays and straights, poor and rich, black and white, it doesn’t make any difference, you’re just welcome.”

“The church is very open to whatever problems you may be going through or    whatever your situation may be,” Jim Chambers said. “Some people there have had their struggles in the church. Some come in with broken spirits. It doesn’t matter,” said Shaw. Haney was among those to find healing. “I was going through a real rough period in my life,” she said, “so I came here, and that was it. It’s just like a second family.” “You’ll never meet a congregation that’s more loving toward each other,” Boggess said.

Irene Kilstrom was drifting from her faith when she found Sacred Heart.

“A friend of mine said, ‘Before you decide not to go to church anymore come to Sacred Heart.’ I did and have never looked back. I really do feel it is a community. Wherever this church was I would go to it. I was in San Diego for a year and looked everywhere in that big city for anything even close to this, and didn’t find it.”

Mary Lynn Focht said she came after “some unfortunate experiences” at “very conservative, narrow-minded” churches, “and what I found here was open-mindedness and tolerance for all.”

Boggess, who’s gay, said at one time he didn’t have a home in the Catholic Church. “I felt unwanted. I’m gay, I’m a big mouth, I’m a lot of things they don’t seem to particularly care for, and I don’t feel that way anymore.” Sacred Heart, he said, “is so unlike anything I had experienced — the joy, the acceptance, the wonderful mix of people…” It all starts at the top. “The message that Father Fangman puts in his sermons — is all about acceptance, it’s all about inclusion,” Boggess said.

Biracial couple Ann and Frank Allen didn’t feel welcome at other churches. “We definitely got the cold shoulder at a couple places — one was flat out rude,” Ann said. “Sacred Heart is not like that. People are hugging you there the first day you’re there. Just a very loving, warm environment.” Frank likes how at Sacred Heart their kids “are judged by their character and not for the color of their skin.”

The Allens come all the way from Papillion. “The drive’s worth it,” Anne said.

Convert Jennifer Di Ruocco feels “welcomed,” not “shunned” as she did elsewhere. Profoundly deaf worshiper Sheldon Bernard appreciates the interpretive signing Julie Delkamiller does for the deaf and hard of hearing.

“People find what they’re looking for here — a Catholic church that nurtures them, makes them feel like they belong and they can feel a connection to,” Fangman said.

In a segregated district saddled by negative perceptions that keep many outsiders, read: whites, away, these pilgrims venture there anyway. So what’s it all about? Are they urban adventurers out ‘slumming’? Liberals assuaging a sense of guilt or satisfying a call to service? Perhaps their presence is an act of faith or a call for action in a community many write-off as hopeless.

“I guess in my case it’s an act of defiance to show people who think like that they’re wrong,” Haney said. “North Omaha gets a bad rap. If you’re prone to believe everything you see in the news, you’d think north Omaha is full of thugs and criminals. We owe it to this community” to overturn those ideas. “This area’s got its problems, but I know so many people in this neighborhood that are just outstanding, wonderful citizens. They want the best for their kids. The school provides kids a great education. Ninety-nine percent of the students are not Catholic,” said Haney, former Sacred Heart school board president.

Toni Holiday said those from outside the neighborhood who support Sacred Heart “have that sensitivity that these are my brothers and sisters.” Anne Chambers said, “I think it means they have a vested interest in that community. I think it says a lot that a church in north Omaha can bring white people in. I like that participation.”

“Many parishioners would never have stepped foot in north Omaha if not for Sacred Heart,” said Pastoral Associate Joyce Glenn. “There’s fear at first but all the scary stories we hear about north Omaha are dissipated when you’re part of the community.” “It really helps people understand to not be afraid to drive down 24th Street,” Michelle Jackson-Triplett said. “The whole north Omaha thing — we need to break through that,” Mueller noted.

Deb Burkholder admits she and husband Kent “worried” when they first went there. “Our perception has changed hugely,” she said. “I’m not going to say it doesn’t have its issues — it does. But there are issues downtown.” The couple believe so strongly in North O, the people and the parish that these empty-nesters moved from an Old Market condo to a house across the street from the church.

“We finally came to the realization that things aren’t going to change in our city unless we become part of the change,” she said.

Appreciating differences within a multicultural setting can breech barriers. Music and other ministries at Sacred Heart attempt to do just that.

“My big thing is diversity,” Haney said. “I want to be around people that aren’t like me. I want to learn from them. They have so many things to give. I’ve been to a lot of Catholic churches in Omaha and they don’t reflect the world. Sacred Heart looks like the world should. It’s made my life a lot richer.”

Glenn said interracial friendships result from the integrated church’s fellowship. “The more we can become friends,” she said, “the more color blind we are.”

Sacred Heart has an impact on the neighborhood. The school, which serves 130 students, offers employability and life skills classes to help kids out of poverty. Fangman said 98 percent of its grads go onto complete high school. Many earn college scholarships. He said the Heart Ministry Center provides food, clothing, utility assistance and nutrition-health ed classes to thousands each month.

“We’re an anchor,” he said. “I know we’re making a difference.”

The work Sacred Heart does draws much support — both in dollars and volunteers.
Then there are the throngs that gather for services and special events.

“To get that many people together every Sunday has got to be a stabilizing influence,” Jim Chambers said. “I think it’s healthy.”

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