Shades of Praise
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Shades of Praise

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"Interracial Choir Becomes Lifeline After Katrina"

In a city renowned for the easy intermingling of races, the members of New Orleans' Shades of Praise gospel choir say there are actually few opportunities for relationships beyond exchanged pleasantries at work or across back fences.

Since the group's creation in 2000, Shades of Praise has become something of a local phenomenon. Members sing at New Orleans' Jazzfest every year, and have performed as far away as Northern Ireland.

As the group's reputation for joyous, high-energy contemporary gospel grew, the disparate choir members found themselves growing into a sort of spiritual family. Hurricane Katrina affected them in the same way it did every other extended family in the city. The trauma of the storm was so devastating that no one was sure the choir would ever regroup.

Members worked the phones and Internet, and visited shelters looking for one another. After weeks of anxiety, everybody was finally accounted for. But more than a third of the choir members lost their homes or their belongings in the floodwaters. Suddenly, the group's role was not to be a symbol of racial togetherness, but a mutual aid society.

As of today, 20 out of 65 Shades are still living outside the city, though they sometimes come in for concerts. Through friends and supporters around the country and in Northern Ireland, the group has raised more than $55,000 to help with living expenses.

There has been much talk of what color New Orleans will be in the years after Katrina. Will it be a chocolate city, vanilla, or cafe au lait? The members of Shades of Praise don't worry about such matters. They just stand up and sing. - National Public Radio


Three years ago, psychologist and theologian Mike Cowen, along with jazz singer Phillip Manuel, founded the interracial gospel choir Shades of Praise with the goal of creating a shared space where people from different backgrounds could come together to work toward a common goal. Shades of Praise had its first official performance at Trinity Episcopal Church on Sept. 12, 2001 -- a timing that added a poignant urgency to its message.

The group is now 60 members strong with a CD (There's a Blessing on the Way) and a Big Easy nomination for "Best Gospel Choir." When Mayor Ray Nagin launched the city's "Care Again" campaign last year, Shades of Praise was selected to perform a series of five concerts to promote the message.

Keyboard player Al Bemiss, who had worked with Manuel as music director of Cornerstone United Methodist Church, is musical director of Shades of Praise. "Shades of Praise is getting the sum of my experience of all my years," says Bemiss, who also has worked as the music director for the touring company of the musical One Mo' Time, and has played keyboards for Clarence "Frogman" Henry's band for the past 27 years.

Shades of Praise performs a variety of both contemporary and traditional gospel, but Bemiss says he puts his deep gospel roots into each song. "My father was a Baptist preacher, so I've been hearing gospel all my life," he says. "But I try to do a wide range of things to accommodate all the different voices, so obviously, it's multi-faceted music. It's a mix of finesse and gutbucket, hard-core gospel." Among the choir members, there's a diversity of both cultural and musical backgrounds -- half the members have sung in choirs all their lives, while the other half is embracing the music for the first time. Bemiss has leveled the playing field by teaching everyone to learn their parts by ear, which seems an apt metaphor for the lesson Shades of Praise tries to teach its members as well as its audiences: In order to create perfect harmony, you must first learn to hear one another. - Gambit Magazine


Delivering a musical message of tolerance, members of Shades of Praise, an interracial New Orleans gospel choir, hit the road and found their voices resonated with the denizens of a small Northern Ireland town. ...'This is simple, powerful music. It comes from the heart'

Byline By Bruce Nolan
Staff writer
Date Friday, April 11, 2003

OMAGH, NORTHERN IRELAND -- With the other passengers, Joshua Walker rose from his seat and stood in the aisle of the chartered bus, finally stretching muscles knotted by 20 hours of travel from New Orleans. Stooping slightly, he peered through the windows at the welcoming, upturned faces assembled in the parking lot of the century-old Presbyterian church.

Like his 30 fellow singers in Shades of Praise, a New Orleans gospel choir, Walker would sleep tonight in the home of one of these strangers.

Nearby, Monie Lumas, a health technician at Veterans Affairs Medical Center, collected her bags and sought out her Omagh host, Colette McAllister. Joe King, a Metairie postal worker, found the McSwiggans. Hands were extended, strangers introduced themselves.

All of them shared a tenuous hope: that in the next few days the choir's interracial fellowship and its rollicking, joyous gospel music might be balm to a land split by sectarian bitterness between Catholics and Protestants.

And there was another possibility, too: In a week of concerts and conversations among themselves and people in Northern Ireland, perhaps the American singers, black and white, would glimpse fresh lessons about American racism, mutated in Northern Ireland into a related prejudice in which religion, not skin color, is the surface marker of privilege and discrimination.

Outside, their bags loaded into their hosts' cars, Walker and the other choir members dispersed to private homes to rest.

Some of the cars turned left out of the church lot and stopped at a traffic light two blocks down a slight hill.

A few feet around that corner on a perfect Saturday afternoon five years ago a small sedan sat unobtrusively at curbside. Pedestrians were packed thick around it when terrorists affiliated with a branch of the Irish Republican Army detonated 500 pounds of concealed explosives.

In a flash, a little agricultural town of 23,000 became the most terrible place on Earth. Twenty-nine people were killed and hundreds maimed in the worst atrocity of 30 years of Catholic-Protestant violence known bleakly as The Troubles.

"There are places in Northern Ireland where things are much different than here in Omagh," said Drew Hamilton, one of Shades of Praise's Omagh hosts. "We had kind of a middle ground here -- a lot of people sort of on the fence, you know?

"That would not do for the bombers. They wanted to harden attitudes here. They thought we'd had it too easy. That's why the bomb."

But in the midst of Omagh's pain, grief and anger, much of which still endures, Hamilton and a few others organized an act of healing defiance: They put together a community youth choir composed of Catholic and Protestant teens and young adults.

And in time they and other peace-minded groups invited Shades of Praise to come sing with them in Omagh. The New Orleanians accepted, paying their own way on the strength of local fund-raising and a few small grants. Their local hosts would provide housing and local transportation.

They would be joint witnesses against hate.

There was much to heal. In Omagh, the memories of a solid week of funerals still lie close to the surface. Everyone, it seems, knew a family touched by the bomb.

Mike Reynolds, another Omagh host, at first thought his family had been spared. A few hours later, he learned that his daughter's fiancé had lost his mother. And his niece. And his sister. She was pregnant with twins.

Making a joyful noise

For a week in late March, Shades of Praise sang with Omagh's choir, and later for the townspeople of Belfast and Dublin, performing at the intersection of two kinds of prejudice, sectarian and racial.

Their tour was peace-making, but only partly.

The rest was making tambourine-shaking, hip-swaying gospel music that ignited concerts and supercharged usually somber church services.

Composed of clerical workers, teachers, civil servants and two Catholic priests, among others, Shades of Praise comes straight out of a rich New Orleans tradition of gospel singing that routinely raises the roof in many churches, large or small.

The choir's musical heart and soul is Al Bemiss, a preacher's son and child of the 7th Ward who for years played keyboard for Clarence "Frogman" Henry.

Bemiss takes contemporary Christian praise music and rearranges it with a New Orleans funk -- "blacktopping," he calls it -- combining it with traditional black gospel music in a repertoire of three dozen or so songs in the choir's repertoire.

Bemiss gives private music lessons and directs the choir at Cornerstone United Methodist Church. But he is in love with Shades of Praise and the effect its chemistry has on the music.

"When you're playing rock and you're in the groove, it's good, but it's just . . . music, right?" he said. "But with gospel, when you're going, it's alive. There's a whole other dimension. The music is not just a thing -- there's life to it."

In performance, Bemiss always plays on his feet, half-crouched over his keyboard like Jerry Lee Lewis, rocking with his singers behind tinted glasses and flashing one-handed signals: repeat from the top, second verse, close it out.

In the middle of a number like "I Am the Way" or "Sweet Aroma of Praise," the Shades sing with abandon, heads thrown back with joy. They sing with their bodies -- swaying, dipping, bopping, hand-clapping, finger-waving, calling out to each other in jubilation.

The soloists, most of them women, exhort, shout and cry out long, throaty hallelujahs that pulled Irish audiences to their feet.

Sometimes they hold hands as they sing, brown fingers entwined with white.

But mostly it's about the music, robust, infectiously joyous music that sets audiences to moving in their seats and clapping along with the choir. The energy begins to run in a closed, accelerating loop: from choir to audience and back to the choir.

"This is not coming from the head," said the Rev. Lois Dejean, a soloist and one of the few members of the choir who has sung overseas with other gospel groups. "This is simple, powerful music. It comes from the heart. And when you hear it, it can't help but hit you."

A choir united

Shades of Praise was co-founded almost three years ago by Mike Cowan, a psychologist and theologian affiliated with Loyola University, and jazz singer Phillip Manuel, who has since left but still makes occasional appearances with the choir.

Partly, Cowan says, he simply wanted to learn to sing.

But he and Manuel were also interested in the idea that singing gospel music together might help black and white strangers forge friendships.

Although he now works as director of Loyola's Lindy Boggs National Center for Adult Literacy, Cowan the psychologist has a long professional interest in developing ways to dismantle racism. His pragmatic approach to racial healing rejects the conviction that white and black people must first confess their racism to each other as a condition to further conversation.

Better, he believes, for strangers from different cultures to pitch in together on a common goal: a better school, a safer playground -- a gospel choir -- and in time reach out to each other in growing trust and friendship to begin the individual conversations that may lead to personal understanding.

On a larger scale, as he told an audience of Catholics and Protestants in Omagh one night, a generation after the civil rights movement, America in some ways is as segregated as ever.

"It's clear where we come from, in New Orleans, that there are institutions which, while they employ a great many black people, are nonetheless white institutions, historically and culturally," he said. "Everyone understands this.

"Similarly, there are some black institutions in New Orleans. But what there are precious few of are integrated institutions -- institutions that are jointly owned or led by black people and white people, for the common good of both groups."

That is what Shades of Praise is, he said, a model, an experiment, a laboratory and a spiritual fellowship.

"The only future New Orleans is going to have will have to be built in a nonsegregated way. This is such an institution," he said.

The observation contained a double lesson, Cowan confided later: one expressing the choir's interracial aspiration -- and another for Catholics and Protestants soaked in their own grim animosities.

"The best thing we can do as Americans is not come over here and begin talking about sectarianism," he said. "The best thing we can do is come over and talk about racism. And it turns out that talking about racism is talking about sectarianism, by indirection."

In Omagh, those talks sometimes began over breakfast in hosts' homes, or over tea at night. Encouraged by Shades of Praise's accessible, joyful music, choir members and host families were jointly surprised by the intensity of the bonds that sprang up in only three days in Omagh.

"So help me, never in all my 52 years would I have ever believed that I would sit at a white person's table and be the center of attention like I was for three whole days," marveled Joe King as the bus pulled away from a teary farewell crowd in Omagh. "I have family back home who don't treat me as well as my Omagh family did."

"We talked, oh yes, we talked," Monie Lumas said.

In the warm incubation of her home, Colette McAllister asked Lumas to explain the dynamics of race relations in the United States. Lumas found herself opening up, her customary inhibitions safely lowered by the innocence of both the question and the questioner.

"She saw me through fresh eyes," Lumas said. "She didn't see me as black first, then all the other things that I am, the way people have all my life back home.

"I shared stuff with her that I didn't expect to. And explaining how things are over here, she did the same for me."

Encounters like that made plain to the Shades that they were on more than a concert tour. They came to believe that conversations like Lumas' were to be nurtured and understood. They were to be both students and teachers -- students in comparing the brutal illogic of Omagh's sectarianism to their own experience with American racism; teachers in helping their hosts see the pathology of American racism repackaged in their Irish sectarianism.

"There is no doubt, this mission has an anointing upon it," Lois Dejean told the group in one pre-concert prayer session in Dublin.

It was a common view, a sense that they were on a peace-making mission -- albeit one drenched in irony.

They began just as war broke out in Iraq.

War in the background

The group was high over the dark mid-Atlantic on March 19 when President Bush announced that war was imminent. Arriving the next morning in Dublin, they gathered before an airport television and watched nighttime explosions over Baghdad.

"Man, I hope this gets over quick," Bemiss muttered.

Jan Rieveschl, a clinical psychologist and one of the earliest members of the choir, took it in soberly. "It's like this choir's destiny is entwined with this whole thing," he said with a wave in the general direction of the TV.

"Our first public concert was on 9/12, one day after 9/11. And now this."

At a practical level, the choir's dispersal among host families during the war's first days meant they were unable to talk much about it among themselves. And for many, news came in disconnected fragments, reduced to a few headlines and the news crawl along the bottom of a TVscreen.

In time, the war became a sub-theme, never threatening to poison the trip entirely, but never far from the surface, either -- a "dull hum" droning in the background, as Ilene Alexander described it.

As a crucible of diversity with white-collar and blue-collar singers, white and black, city and suburban, Shades of Praise had no group position on the war. To the extent there was a consensus, many thought Cowan articulated it before an audience in Omagh:

"We won't get into the politics of the war -- at least I won't," Cowan said. "But I wish we were sending out into the world more gospel choirs and fewer armies."

Star treatment

In concert after concert, the energy pouring out of Shades of Praise ignited audiences eager to be swept up by thousand-watt New Orleans gospel and praise music, so distant from the traditional European melodies that accompany their liturgies.

They opened themselves particularly to the choir's black members, so rare as to be almost exotic on the all-white streets of Omagh and Belfast.

Late one night, Walker strolled into an all-white Irish pub with a few white choir members, tipping the racial balance all by himself. A hearty man with a brilliant smile, a shaved skull and a sepulchral voice reminiscent of James Earl Jones', Walker mentioned in conversation over a Guinness stout that he is a singer with an American gospel group.

In minutes, the proprietor had cleared the floor and Walker was singing "Old Man River" before a rapt audience that exploded when he finished, then demanded more.

Walker wandered out a little unsteadily a few hours later, never having put his hand in his pocket after that, he said.

And at a Catholic Mass one Sunday morning in Omagh, the faces in the audience included a few strangers to Sacred Heart church. They were Protestants, many of them teenagers, who had heard the choir in a public concert the night before and wanted to hear more, no matter that it meant breaching convention by appearing in a Catholic church.

Afterward, as the choir prepared to stroll a few blocks to perform again at Omagh's First Presbyterian Church, Sacred Heart parishioner Carmel Tierney lingered near her church's main entrance, telling friends arriving for the next Mass what they had just missed.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there aren't a few strange faces in the congregation down at First Omagh in a little while," she said, glancing at the departing Catholics.

One day Shades of Praise gave a workshop for the choir of a local high school, supplemented by other teens from Omagh's community choir.

Bemiss scattered his 30 sopranos, tenors, altos and basses among about 50 teens in the youth choir and launched the assembled multitude into "Jesus is a Rock."

Astonished, then delighted by the joy in the music, the teens picked it up quickly and sang along lustily, shooting each other quick grins and glances that said "who knew?" as they clapped and boogied to the sound of their own surprising music.

Unnoticed at the back of the choir, Reynolds, the man whose daughter's fiancé had lost his family to the 1998 bomb, held a cell phone high overhead to catch the music.

On the other end, his sister-in-law held a phone to her ear, absorbing a wireless dose of New Orleans gospel music.

She was gravely ill, he explained later.

"I'm still so touched, so moved by this, you know?" he said. "I wanted to have this wash over her the way it was washing over me. There's so much feeling to it. It's so healing.

"I wanted her to feel this."

. . . . . . .

Bruce Nolan can be reached at or (504) 826-3344. - The Times-Picayune

"Remembering Katrina: New Orleans cathedral service unites faiths in worship"

Three great faith traditions came together August 27 at Christ Church Cathedral, New Orleans, to lift up and commemorate the contributions of the faith community with a soul-inspiring blend of New Orleans music and interfaith prayers for the city's recovery and rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. The cathedral was filled with people of every background, from far and near.
The joyful voices of the Shades of Praise Choir filled the cathedral for the 4 p.m. service with selections of Gospel music as a prelude to the liturgy of remembrance, healing and hope, titled "Come Forth and be Renewed."

Christ Church Cathedral's new organist, Jarrett Follette, also set the tone, selecting Aaron Copland's moving "Fanfare for the Common Man" for the processional, accompanied by a brass orchestra and rumbling timpani.

The solemn procession, complete with incense, included Louisiana Bishop Charles Jenkins, joined by Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai; Imam Rafeeq Nu'Man, Masjidur Rahim of the Muslim community; Christ Church Cathedral Dean David duPlantier; superintendent and pastor, the Rev. John Pierre; and visiting Bishop Suffragan Nedi Rivera of Olympia.

Following a litany led by Laura Bailey, the cathedral's Christian Education director and a young member of the congregation, Nu'Man read a passage from the Koran.

Cohn read the familiar words from Ecclesiastes, using a variation for some people's ears, "a time to rip, a time to sew."

Cathedral Choir Member Cedric Bridges' deep, mellow voice chanted the 23rd Psalm, followed by a reading from Romans by Ronald Markham, CEO of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Elder John Pierre of the Living Witness Church in Central City read the Gospel.

Jenkins then moved to the cathedral's north transept where two large palm trees stood. He was joined there by members of the board of the diocese's Jericho Road Episcopal Housing Initiative which, in partnership with Episcopal Relief and Development, builds homes in the Central City area near the cathedral for low income New Orleanians to purchase. Jenkins blessed the trees as a sign of the historic partnership and a sign of renewal.

"[L]et [these trees] remind us that life ever springs forth from death," Jenkins intoned, announcing that the offering would be given to the Jericho Road Housing Initiative. The offertory anthem, "Come Forth to be Renewed," was composed by Robert Powell for the 200th anniversary of the cathedral in 2005.

Nu'Man then blessed the Elysian Trumpet. "We now dedicate the Elysian Trumpet as a source of joy, hope and renewal for the city of New Orleans, the State of Louisiana and our brothers and sisters throughout the region," he proclaimed.

A work in progress, the Elysian Trumpet is being crafted in gold by Dave Monette of Portland, Oregon. It is given in memory of Irvin Mayfield, Sr. and all those who lost their lives in Hurricane Katrina.

The cathedral's 2006 Artist in Residence, Irvin Mayfield, Jr., then offered his trumpet reflections, accompanied by Ronald Markham at the piano. Mayfield played soulful renditions of "Go Down Moses" and "Amazing Grace," bringing his unique style and passion which ranged from tearfully downtrodden to wailing, breathtaking rafter-raising, all in the same piece. It brought everyone to their feet for a standing ovation.

In his greeting to the worshippers, duPlantier acknowledged his staff for their assistance with the service. He announced, "Two of the Jericho Road houses have been built and will be lowered into place." The congregation responded with more ovations and duPlantier reminded the gathering that another concert was planned for the 201st anniversary of the cathedral on November 17 and Irvin Mayfield, Jr. would hold a second concert similar to the one last year.

Nu'Man offered a closing prayer for the service. Cohn was to offer a closing prayer also, but instead put his arm around the imam's shoulders and told the congregation that the words the imam spoke were exactly what he would have said from his Jewish tradition. God's words had been spoken.

Jenkins concluded with the ancient Aaronic blessing in Hebrew, bringing the interfaith closing full circle. - Episcopal News Service


God is Still Doing Great Things
Celebrate the Child



Shades of Praise was begun in October 2000, when two friends, renowned New Orleans jazz vocalist Philip Manuel and Loyola University theologian Michael Cowan had an idea to create a genuinely integrated organization. They wondered if they brought black and white people together to do something fun, meaningful, and valuable, might they create an environment where at least this small group of people could begin to get past the personal segregation that exists in life in New Orleans and in America.

Noted New Orleans Musician Al Bemiss was enlisted as musical director for the fledgling volunteer choir shortly after its inception and the numbers grew to the present 60 members. The strength of the founding idea and the passion of its members have made Shades of Praise an integral part of New Orleans’ amazing and difficult rebirth.

Following the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Shades or Praise has been called upon frequently to appear at many events associated with the rebuilding of New Orleans. They sang at the lighting of the 2006 French Quarter Christmas tree, Touro Synagogue’s 2007 JazzFest Shabbat, and the post-Katrina re-opening of several churches around town. Again in 2007 They were nominated for the Big Easy Award in the Best Gospel Choir Category.

In addition to concerts at various festivals, churches and other events, Shades of Praise sings annually at JazzFest in the Gospel tent. They were featured in the WWL TV promotion, nominated for the 2004 Big Easy Award in the Best Gospel Choir Category, and were at the center of a citywide series of “Care Again” concerts, to facilitate public dialogue on race and promote harmony and diversity.