This article was published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Baylor Line and written by Katerina Cheesman.
Baylor’s Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir has become a source of power to both Baylor students and the people they bless with their music.
THE HEAVENLY VOICES GOSPEL Choir practice begins with the kind of announcements and chitchat that are routine at any other student organizational meeting, all of it echoing throughout Miller Chapel in Baylor University’s Tidwell Bible Building. And then the strong voice of the group’s chaplain—a tall, thin student whose confidence commands the group’s attention—rises above the noise to guide the group in an opening prayer.
The jocular atmosphere shifts to one of serious concentration as the choir’s members bend their heads in focused communication with their God. The room suddenly feels like it’s buzzing with the prayer power of a thousand grandmothers on their knees.
At the bidding of Jared Fletcher, the choir director, the members gather on the stage, some leaning against the wall while others sit on the floor with crossed legs. Jared sits by the piano wearing large headphones above his subtle faux-hawk hairstyle. “I want you to close your eyes. Breathe in. Breathe out,” he quietly instructs. “Breathe in all your troubles. Hold it in, get it in your mind, and let your stress go. Focus your mind on God.”
The members comply as their faces visibly relax and their chests slowly rise and fall with the practiced rhythm of a yoga master. The sounds of piano chords start up, fitting into the atmosphere like a last puzzle piece, mingling with the steady breathing of the members. The group, predominately African American, includes a pale face peeking out here and there.
“I want to teach you a song that’ll help you with your week,” Jared says before his voice, a rich baritone, picks up the chorus of a song: “I want to live a life that’s real, I want to serve you.”
This is a new song, fresh to their ears, yet some of the members begin humming along. Jared starts speaking the lyrics, in a sudden transition from a moment of worship to a moment of pedagogy. “Before we learn the tune, although half y’all already got it, what do these lyrics mean to you?” he asks with a big grin directed toward the humming students.
After a few members have spoken from their heart, a visitor—a plump, shy girl in unseasonably warm Uggs and a pink shirt—pipes up. “It means that I can only grow from here,” she says, blushing prettily at the noises of approval and nods of agreement. It’s easy to see why new people don’t stay new for very long.
Then, using a call-and-response technique, Jared begins to teach the members the simple melody, and then the harmony, one group at a time. Each section of the choir, which is loosely divided into alto, soprano, and tenor, listens attentively as he finds the harmony by ear. Within minutes, the choir is singing half of the new song. With their eyes closed and their hands lifted, they look like they belong in a scene from a gospel church service. Until Jared stops them.
“Nah. Put emphasis on it. Don’t be lazy!” The offenders, a pair of altos, giggle and cover their mouths as they exchange guilty looks. When the tenors clearly stumble across the wrong note, Jared points wildly at the erroneous section with his drumsticks while singing the correct note, as if he could push the correct note into them.
In the beginning
If a psychiatrist were to have the personified practice sit down in a comfy leather settee and submit to an examination, the practice would be sent away with a diagnosis of joyous schizophrenia. One minute, the members are a gaggle of giggling friends (“I love this song!”), the next they are a classical choir (“Enunciate!”), and then they are a performing gospel group (“Praise the Lord! Clap your hands!”).
Most practices with Heavenly Voices—Baylor’s one and only gospel choir, normally referred to as “HV”—tend to evolve into a praise and worship service. Most students come for the warm community and spiritual connection.
It isn’t really about performing or even singing. It’s about worshipping God in a unique and truthful way.
But back in the day, when the words “Baylor” and “diversity” weren’t always used in the same sentence, HV was created to provide a calm harbor of culture and community among black students at Baylor.
It all started with Tonja Frazier Carpenter ’91, who at-tended Baylor in the late 1980s and loved to sing. However, Baylor isn’t a place where you can just hop into a choir. Choirs are serious business. You must first audition, and classical choirs typically require their participants to be able to read sheet music. Growing up in a musically enriched home and church, Tonja learned music through call-and-response and by ear. Un-fortunately, that didn’t cut it for the classically trained choirs at Baylor.
So Tonja did the next best thing—she founded Heavenly Voices in 1988. This choir would be open to every-one, and no one had to audition to join. “I wanted to build a bridge be-tween the black and white students,” she says in her smooth voice. “We started with fifteen students, and by the second year it had exploded to forty students.”
But HV was much more than just a choir. It was a haven for those who missed the gospel influences of home, offering participation in uplifting activities and a sense of belonging. “For African American students, HV was something that helped them stay,” Tonja adds. “Music is in the hearts and souls of the African American people. You can’t sing it with-out putting your heart into touching others around you.”
Ron English ’95, MDiv ’99, a founding member and the current faculty advisor of HV as a staff member in Baylor’s Office of Enrollment Management, couldn’t agree more.
Known as Pop to current members, he’s a big man with a deep, slow chuckle and a crushing handshake. “There weren’t a lot of African Americans [at Baylor] back then, so when I heard there was a gospel choir . .” he trails off, his smile dramatically white against his dark skin. “But HV became my lifeline. It shifted how I lived as an undergrad. I lived for God.” Then, referring to his current role as the pas-tor of a small Baptist church in Waco, he chuckles. “I guess it worked ou.”
An expanding community
Since the 19805, Baylor’s ethnic diversity has increased exponentially. And HV is no different. Nowadays, you’ll see the creamy brown skin of a Hispanic girl or the freckled pale skin of white guy sprinkled throughout the smiling faces of HV’s black members. “I’m so excited to see the diversity in the choir—that it’s not just a black gospel choir,” Tonja says with warmth. “It exposes students to various kinds of church music and is really great to add to a diverse university”
The focus of HV is no longer on color. Not one member mentioned seeking a community of just black students. It’s more about the comfort of finding fellow believers of a similar age and a similar mission. And while HV’s makeup may have changed, the mission has not. It’s simple: worship and glorify God with the talents you have.
Sydney Thomas, HV’s president, knows that talent isn’t just musical. “To me, HV represents what the body of Christ should look like. Some people have the voice, some have the administrative abilities, some have musical talent, but we all come together to create a community that glorifies God.”
Freshman Margret Odence agrees whole-heartedly. “It’s community-based. Anybody and everybody gets together and, through music, expresses themselves and praises God,” she says. “Everybody is equal in worship as a corporate team.”
It’s that sense of community within HV, members say, that makes it possible to genuinely worship God within the Waco community. HV attends a few events each semester, usually church services or gospel choir concerts. The choir also hosts a large event called Gospel Fest in which choirs from such schools as the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Arlington, and Texas State University attend a workshop and perform in Waco Hall.
HV doesn’t do any of this for the publicity, although the choir could probably use some. At performances, the members of HV seem to load an extra battery pack of praise power in their souls, and it’s all for God. Sometimes it’s just the exhilarated expression on their uplifted faces, and other times it’s the undeniably impressive spontaneous stomp fest that has its roots in ancient tribal culture.
Gospel music is sometimes disparaged as simply falling prey to “emotionalism,” implying that what is offered is shallow praise based on emotion instead of reason. But all it takes is witnessing one HV performance to see that theory doesn’t ring true. The choir’s members understand what’s behind the music and the songs they perform. It makes sense why Jared is so particular when they start learning a song; in order to apply the message of the song to your life, you first have to learn the true depth behind the lyrics. And the members of HV realize that as the community of believers they strive to be, the understanding and application of truth is essential.
It’s that sense of community that seems to keep the choir’s members coming back for more. While college can be the time when students are mentored and grow into successful citizens, sometimes Baylor can be just a little too big for everyone to find a place to belong.
To Sydney, HV’s president, the choir became a life-changing program. “I felt lost when I came here [as a freshman]. I wasn’t get-ting what I needed,” she says. “I actually wanted to transfer from Baylor, but then I came to HV. And this is exactly where I need to be.”
Aja Walker, a junior, agrees. “It truly is the best thing about Baylor University,” he says. “I can’t imagine life without it.”
Being around Heavenly Voices is like attending a family reunion, only there isn’t anyone who asks why you aren’t married yet. At practices, laughter is sometimes a more common melody than the choir’s newest song.
For an example of the group’s personality, look no further than Jared Fletcher. He’s the mentor, the brother, the artist, and the preacher all wrapped up in one hip package. “He loves everyone in the choir,” says Jessica Wright, the bespectacled HV secretary who seems as tall as Brittney Griner. “He wants the best for us. If you have a test, he doesn’t want you to come to practice. He is a few years older than us, so he understands what we go through. He really can relate to you.”
It might seem to be Jared’s charismatic spirit or his clever nicknames for everyone (“Hey, Chocolate Drop!”) that makes him effective, but actually it’s his genuine spirit that draws and keeps HV centered on what they exist to do: worship God through song, any way you like it.
“I have a prayer request,” Jared starts one meeting. “Let’s pray for that minivan that was going down 1-35 earlier, with forty cops behind it. And the bad thing about it was that the minivan was going forty-five. And they couldn’t stop it.”
Jared’s laugh, like the Jolly Green Giant’s with a finish of fancy cracked pepper, mixes with the hoots and chuckles of the students.
But as magnetic as Jared is, he knows he isn’t what draws students to participate in the choir. “It’s about the spiritual growth of the students,” Jared insists. “I want them to reflect the light of Jesus wherever they may go. It’s about living life to the fullest and breaking the shackles that bind them.”
And people notice that about HV members. “They are the real deal,” says Josh Roberts, the associate technical director for Waco Hall, as he munches on a flimsy slice of pepperoni pizza backstage at Gospel Fest. He sees the choir members around campus, in Chapel performances, and at Gospel Fest. “They are talented and easy to work with, but most importantly they act out what they sing,” he says. “They are authentic.”
It’s this sense of genuine spirit about HV members that draws people to them. David Gaskell, a gawky, white fresh-men with a tilted grin, says he joined because of the welcoming, supportive spirit of the group. “I am like the most non-minority in this minority event thing, but it’s not awkward. We love on each other,” he says.
Another freshman, Emily Blankenship, agrees. “Since day one, it has just felt right,” she says. “Like there was never an awkward new-person feeling. Never had to prove yourself. It was, ‘Welcome to our family.'”
Twenty-four years since its founding, Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir has remained a rare community within the framework of Baylor. It’s not about the voice talent or the songs, though those aspects do exist. It’s about becoming someone who seeks after God.
While its immediate impact may not be obvious, HV has had far-reaching effects on the community on campus and at large. Somehow, in the midst of our chaotic world, Heavenly Voices has created a place where people find themselves in the silence of prayer and the communion of music. And that’s truly sweeter to God’s ears than any song could ever be.
Katrina Cheesman ’12 graduated from Baylor in May with a degree in professional writing. Originally from Fishers, Indiana, she will be serving in the U.S. Air Force in Germany as a public affairs officer in the near future. In April, she was inducted into the honor society Phi Beta Kappa.