On a snowy Monday night, the walls inside the Juneau Arts & Culture Center echoed with a multitude of voices. With nearly every seat filled, the wide range of people of varying ages and colors followed the hand motions of Reverend Bobby Lewis as he enthusiastically taught them three gospel songs: “Sing,” “Total Praise,” and “God is Able.” He walked amongst the singers, clapping, laughing, and snapping his fingers as he worked with the individual sections. Eventually, he blended those sections — sopranos, basses, altos, tenors — together in one unified sound.
It was the first night of the 2018 Gospel Workshops & Celebrations, and yet the choir participants sounded like they had been singing together for far longer. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Lewis has been coming to Juneau to lead these workshops annually since 2012. At one point during practice Lewis asked his fellow workshop leader Eustace Johnson to stop accompanying the group on piano, saying to all gathered: “Let’s try it again without the music, because we are the music.”
The group will be the music on Sunday, March 4 for two different performances at the JACC at 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. They have this week to learn 13 gospel songs to perform with a band for what Lewis hopes to be a rejuvenating experience for all involved. He, along with Johnson, Jaunelle Celaire and three-time Grammy nominee Ryan Shaw will perform in their own show “Motown for Our Town” on Friday, March 2 at the JACC at 7:30 p.m. as a fundraiser for the new Arts Complex.
Lupita Alvarez, who has been coming to the workshops from the beginning, said she’s seen the number of participants grow from 75 to well over 100.
“I love the energy that Bobby brings. I love the fact that you don’t have to know music to sing. I don’t know how to read music and you don’t have to. He really encourages everyone to sing whether you can or not. He helps you be part of the group and do the best you can. …He can make music out of any resources he has and it’s really fun. It’s very healing and to have that kind of positive energy …there’s this power that comes from singing from your heart,” she said.
Rich Lyon, one of the participants who decided to join up to sing with his wife Joy, hadn’t sung in a large group like this in more than 30 years. He had to have someone tell him he was a tenor, he said with a smile. Of working with workshop leaders, he said, “I feel like I’m part of the stew and they’re the spice and suddenly, we’re a delicacy. …It’s stone soup without real talent. You’ve got to have people who are really talented to make this stone soup into a pretty good dinner.”
One participant, Venus Woods, said this is her fourth time coming to the workshops. “Every year when we meet it’s like a wonderful homecoming. Your family is here,” she said. “From the time you get here on the first day it’s fun all the way through.”
Lewis, the pastor of New Light Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, has been leading gospel workshops from Japan to Spain. It was while he was in Fairbanks for the Summer Arts Festival and that he spoke with attendees from Juneau. They helped coordinate with the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council to bring Lewis and his friends to Juneau for workshops and performances.
“Different colors, different creeds, different backgrounds: we all come together to unify,” he said of those gathered for practice. Lewis called the group an “encouragement choir,” a place to birth community and to bring strangers and neighbors together.
“People are working so hard, financially struggling, and their kids are crying out for identity and everything, but this (is a) place we come just to get rejuvenated. It really is a time of healing,” Lewis said. “I think music itself is a medicine. When people are singing, we all have a melody …that melody brings us together. We are singing the same thing. We are singing the same rhythms. So it really is a unifying thing, and when you stand in a room full of people singing even ‘God Bless America’ there is something that happens.”
For tickets to the upcoming “Motown in Our Town” can be purchased through the jahc.org, Hearthside Books and at the JACC.
• Clara Miller is a staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.