Praying twice: Black Catholic Ministries Gospel Choir marks 10 years of lifting souls

A woman sings as part of the Black Catholic Ministries Gospel Choir in this Detroit Catholic file photo. To celebrate the choir's 10th anniversary, a celebratory concert will take place Sunday, Nov. 7, at Sacred Heart Church in Detroit. (Joe Pelletier | Detroit Catholic file photo)

Choir to host anniversary concert Nov. 7 in Detroit; director says music a 'celebration for Black Catholics ... for the whole Church'

DETROIT ─ It was 10 years ago when the National Association of Pastoral Musicians was having its conference in Detroit, and John Throne was asked to form a group of Detroit singers to perform at the conference.

Throne, music director of Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit and then the director of Black Catholic ministry in the Archdiocese of Detroit, wanted the group to include singers from multiple parishes throughout the city.

The conference was looking for 15-25 singers, Thorne recalled, so he didn't think RSVPs were necessary.

One-hundred and thirty people showed up for the first rehearsal.

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m looking for 25 people to come; you don’t have to let me know if you’re interested, just come to the rehearsal,’” Thorne told Detroit Catholic. “I had no idea there would be this much interest. I called the conference the next day, saying I needed more music sheets. They asked if I needed five, and I said, ‘No, I need 125.’”

And that’s how the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Black Catholic Ministries Gospel Choir was formed.

Since then, the choir has continued to perform at various concerts, special Masses and community events with choirs from other denominations. The group has recorded two CDs and is performing its 10th anniversary celebration at Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit at 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 7.

In the largest city in the country with a majority Black population that’s also dripping with music history, the Black Catholic Ministries Gospel Choir has become the standard-bearer in bringing Catholic Gospel music to the community.

Thorne said group meets "two or three times a year" for rehearsals, and hosts concerts and events throughout the year, especially during November, which is recognized as Black Catholic History Month.

“Over the past 10 years, we’ve being lifting up the archdiocese, drawing attention to the contributions Black Catholics have made," Thorne said. "While we’re still in a struggle for our freedom amidst the racism that has run so rampant in the country since its founding, we realize there is something that happens when we bring people of faith together.”

Karen Griffin, who has been singing in the parish choir at St. Moses the Black Parish in Detroit for more than 30 years, has been part of the Black Catholic Ministries Gospel Choir since its inception. Griffin said the choir has been instrumental in increasing awareness of Black Catholic Gospel music.

“When you’re singing at the church with the parish choir, you’re singing for the Mass, but with this choir, we sing things you would not sing at church and at places that are outside the church,” Griffin said, such as an interdenominational concert attended by the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Black History Month event at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacraments, and concerts in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Griffin said the choir’s presence in the city and beyond has shown that Catholicism and Gospel music can go together — something many didn't seem to know, Griffin said.

“As Catholics, people seem to think we don’t sing Gospel at all, but we do,” Griffin said. “We are a little different, but people really like it. It’s upbeat, and it’s natural for me to like the music. We're able to sing the songs of Black Catholic composers, and have workshops where they come to teach others. It’s our heritage. And we get to let people know our music, our heritage and how we celebrate and worship differently.”

Gospel music and Black spirituality are intertwined, Thorne said, and the choir is part of the story of faith in the Detroit community.

“St. Augustine once said, ‘When you sing, you pray twice,’" Thorne said. "For us and the songs of our ancestors, that has been something that has carried people through hard times. When we look at slavery, sharecropping, what our ancestors went through, they had to hold on to pieces of their faith. It was the songs that carried them through, even when they could not read and didn’t know the Scriptures. It was the songs that were passed down from generation to generation.”

Throne, Griffin and other members of the Black Catholic Ministry Gospel Choir are looking forward to sharing those stories during this weekend's concert.

“We’re going to be singing some fabulous songs,” Griffin said. “You’ll hear a couple different arrangements; it’s going to blow your mind.”

The 10-year anniversary concert not only celebrates the contributions of Black Catholics, but is a testament to the resilience of a community that clung to faith during a difficult COVID-19 pandemic, Thorne said.

“I think people should come with an open mind, knowing they are going to have a great time, a wonderful time getting together some of the best musicians in the city from our parishes,” Throne said. “This is not just a celebration for Black Catholics; this is for the whole Church, to understand our spirituality and who we are.”


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