Gospel choir gives new sound to Mormon hymns


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A mostly black gospel choir in Utah is bringing a vibrant new sound to familiar Mormon hymns and shining a light on the increasingly global component of a faith that has more than half of its members outside the U.S.

Songs like “When Jesus Says Yes” and “He’s a Battle Axe” are accompanied by swaying, clapping and stomping as the Genesis Gospel Choir makes what members call “a joyful noise.”

But the choir, which has over 30 singers, is getting more invitations to sing before predominantly white audiences than they had imagined, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Genesis Group President Don Harwell says the clapping may make some Mormons uncomfortable, but gospel music appeals to new church members from different cultures and they should be able to add their culture to the church.

“They are so locked in standard Mormon culture they don’t realize how many different cultures are now in the church,” Harwell said. “With South America and Africa, there may be more people of color in the church than white people.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has 15 million reported members today, with more than half outside the United States, church scholars have said.

The Genesis Group was created in 1971 to support black Mormons at a time when blacks were barred from the lay clergy. The ban was lifted in 1978. The support group was dormant for a while, but has since evolved.

Genesis choir director Debra Bonner and her husband Harry joined the LDS church in 1981 after she resigned from being a Baptist missionary in Liberia.

“I know this is the Lord’s church,” Bonner said. “But the hardest part has been the music.”

With an education in music and the urging of her children, she joined the Genesis choir las fall.

Genesis member and music leader Ellie Mae Johnson started pushing the choir toward more than casual monthly rehearsals a little over a year ago. Bonner took the helm in November, putting the choir in black outfits and starting weekly practices.

“It was Ellie’s passion that put us in a place where we could be fine-tuned by Sister Bonner,” said Tekulve Jackson-Vann, a choir member since the early 2000s.

“I’m a convert, and my first lessons in the gospel didn’t sound like the hymns in the (standard LDS) ‘green book’ or the talks in sacrament meeting,” he says. “I learned it in a very spirited way. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Mormon hymns. They have their place in my spiritual journey.”

To “touch the hem of my savior’s garment,” he said, “I get that through gospel music.”

Jackson-Vann is often a soloist, and says the choir gives people a taste of the old gospel church.

“It was so great to share the message of the gospel in a way that people are used to hearing it,” he said.

Harwell said the choir wants audiences to know that being Mormon is a blessing, not a curse.

“We … want to bring as many souls as we can to Christ through music,” Harwell said. “We know we are doing something right.”

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