This is an excellent article about how the silence practiced by gospel choirs is leading to death. It appeared in the Sunday (10/23/94) News Journal, Wilmington, DE. There are also two excellent sidebars.


From small rural churches to center city arenas, voices rise in a joyful noise for the Lord. But AIDS has cast a pall of silence over the black gospel music community.


by Rhonda Graham
Staff reporter Sunday News Journal, Wilmington, Del.

This wasn't just a funeral, it was an event. The socializing customary before the arrival of the family had grown to a low hum as friends who hadn't seen each other in months chatted across the pews. Many had come for the rare opportunity to hear the deceased's award-winning gospel choir perform for free.

The grieving stared motionless or solemnly wiped at tears. Then silence swarmed through the large gothic church on Wilmington's east side two winters ago. The sound of metal, muted by rubber, tapping against the hardwood floor followed. Ka-dat. Barely anyone moved. A few seconds passed. Ka-dat. Ka-dat. And on it went as an emaciated figure with grayish pallor came into view.

Slowly shifting his walker, the 30-ish man held up the long procession to the coffin, The more than 400 mourners packed into pews on the main floor and the balcony seemed entranced with a macabre sense of anticipation.

The man pursed his lips and moved deliberately. Ka-dat. Ka-dat. Overwhelmed, another young man in a burnt orange suit and chemically processed hair sitting near the rear of the sanctuary dropped his face into his hands and sobbed. Ka-dat. Ka-dat.

Finally at the coffin, the man with the walker briefly surveyed his brother in the Lord, then turned to find a seat. A low hum returned as he joined the grieving.

This past February, he joined his brother many believe in heaven.

A deafening silence

As it has done to the fashion, theater and dance communities, AIDS is leaving an indelible mark on the black gospel music community, a central part of the African-American worship experience. From top-ranked Billboard choirs to the piano benches of Delaware churches, HIV infection and AIDS are widely rumored, privately discussed but rarely publicly acknowledged. They are as feared as leprosy was in biblical days.

Men, mostly ages 20 to 40, are being infected and dying in a deafening silence perpetuated by their congregations and the industry for whom they have spent the better part of their lives performing.

It is a spirit of silence rooted in paranoia and theological disagreements about homosexuality in the African-American community. Organizers of today's 8th Annual AIDS Walk in Wilmington hope their event will increase this community's awareness of the epidemic's impact.

"It's devastating. The same kind of impact in gospel that it is having in the world," said the Rev. Al Hobbs, chairman of the Gospel Music Workshop of America, the largest black gospel music association in the world.

There has been no official effort to tabulate the number of AIDS deaths in the black gospel community. But insiders trace deaths to the early 1980s.

"I think over the next couple of years some of the major players in gospel will be hit with this, " said Christopher Squires of the Rev. Ernest Davis Jr.'s Wilmington-Chester Mass Choir.

In Delaware this year, 26 people have died from AIDS. At least four were gospel musicians, one a woman.

Since 1991, at least 14 singers and musicians have died between Middletown and Philadelphia, a regional circuit for gospel musicians. In Kent County, about 10 singers and musicians in civilian choirs and churches have died since 1990, said Ruth Shelton, director of the Dover Air Force Base Gospel Choir.

If more than one member dies, groups fear being labeled as an "AIDS choir."

Interviews with more than 40 people connected with the local and national black gospel music community--singers, musicians, relatives, spouses, clergy and friends--illuminated the extent of the code of silence. Most agreed to talk only if guaranteed complete anonymity.

One exception is Wilmington recording artist Tracy Shy. "I'm looking at the senior citizens. They are living to be 100, and my peers are falling like flies," Shy said.

Uplifting music is big business The outer circle contains local groups and congregational choirs whose repertoires are mixed with original music and the hit songs of the national performers. Their goal it to grow in popularity through regional engagements and eventually join the inner circle.

These two societies share a common center--an evangelical Protestant belief that music must "lift up the name of Jesus" by portraying him as God the refuge, shelter in time of storm, deliverer and healer.

In Delaware, as in states across the country, weekends are filled with marathon worship services, where in recent years traditional gospel has been infused with worldly rhythm-and-blues melodies and self-affirming lyrics.

Gospel music is big business. As of October 1993, more than 40 million records had been sold. According to a 1992 Gallup poll, 31 million people have attended a gospel concert outside of church. The Gospel Music Workshop of America convention in Atlanta this summer drew 25,000 people.

Locally, the circuit extends as far south as Salisbury, MD and north to Philadelphia, which is known for producing choirs with a traditional gospel sound.

Wilmington's Jay Caldwell and the Gospel Ambassadors will easily turn hundreds of fan-waving, lower- and middle-income women into swooning admires with a sound reminiscent of Sam Cook, the pre-eminent gospel falsettist.

The Wilmington-Chester Mass Choir, with about 90 members from Middletown to Philadelphia, has received two national Stellar Gospel Music awards. The choir routinely needs seating for 300 audience members.

Smaller New Castle County groups, like Linda Henry and the Daughters of Faith and choirs springing our of congregations, such as The Rusell Delegation of Simpson United Methodist Church, have regional followings from Baltimore to Pocomoke City, Md.

An audience of one

Earnest LaMarr King was hopeful this simmer. He was sure that after mailing 200 letters to New Castle County churches and organizations connected to the black community, he would get at least one minister to attend an organizational meeting for today's AIDS Walk.

He did. King's uncle a minister from Chicago who happened to be in town, accompanied him to Eighth Street Baptist Church for the meeting in July. Not counting that congregation's pastor and his uncle, King made a presentation to an audience of one, a woman who had read about the meeting in the newspaper.

King, who is minister of music at Wilmington's Peoples Baptist Full Gospel Church, thought stark reality would increase interest in the benefit walk. Eight of the 10 to 12 AIDS patients he visits at area hospitals are black men.

Delaware Lesbian and Gay Health Advocates had enlisted his help in increasing the number of black participants in the 5k walk around the city. "Out of 1,500 walkers last year, we had only 50 or 60 [blacks]," said King, a singer with the New John Howard Caravan Singers of Atlantic City. "That's not good."

The AIDS Surveillance Office in the Division of Public Health has recorded 1,132 AIDS cases in Delaware since 1981. Of those, 920 are men; 257 of them are black males who have died. Another 224 black adult and adolescent males are living with AIDS in Delaware.

"I know quite a few men in the church who have died because of the disease," King said in July. "You look at all the musicians and piano players. What they've done is keep quiet, especially in your more spirited churches. It just makes them turn to fear."

'Legally, I became his'

The case of the Rev. James Cleveland may best epitomize the magnitude of the silence. Christopher Harris certainly feels that way.

When he was 13, Harris was the only boy alto in the choir at Cleveland's Los Angeles church. He was strapping 6 feet tall and looked 20.

Cleveland was a giant in the industry. He wrote more than 400 songs, recorded more than 100 albums, 16 of them gold, and won four Grammys. He founded the Gospel Music Workshop of America and mentored a young Aretha Franklin.

When he died in 1991 at age 59, 6,000 attended his funeral. Harris is now 25 and has HIV. "It has its moments, but mostly it doesn't affect me unless there is stress," said Harris, who is Cleveland's former foster son.

Harris once went by the name Christopher Cleveland. That was before he filed suit against Cleveland's estate alleging five years of sexual contact that ended with Harris testing positive for HIV.

"Legally, I became his," he said in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles.

The case was settled out of court. The terms prohibit him from discussing the settlement. But he is free to discuss his live with Cleveland.

"I went to his church. He looked into my face and saw my dreams and he used it," he said. "I wanted to sing, I didn't want to be like him. He promised that he would help me. He just played it to his advantage, he used my naiveness to his gain," Harris said.

Harris said his sexual encounters with the older singer were not molestation. Nor, he said, were they his first such encounters with a man. He says that they were typical of the secretive lifestyle of many of the people to whom he was exposed.

"People in [Cleveland's] inner circle knew, people at church knew," he said. "But they pretended it didn't exist. I guess what you don't see you can't say. But I can."

"No. He didn't die of heart failure--heart failure is just a delusion," Harris said, nearly laughing. The he hesitated. "Let's just leave it at that."

No aid for the afflicted

What makes the black gospel community one of America's last bastions to confront the 13-year-old AIDS epidemic is its vibrant yet underground homosexual subculture.

"First of all, they deny the homosexuality," Harris said. "Then if something else like AIDS comes along with it, the haven't dealt with the first part. So of course they can't deal with this."

"You would think there would be more compassion. They are very, very cruel."

Behind their backs and from some pulpits, gays are called punks, sissies and even girlfriend.

"We sing their songs and shout and get happy off their music, but condemn them privately," said the Rev. Yvette Flunder, former lead singer of the Walter Hawkins Love Center Choir of Oakland, Calif.

Such pejorative attitudes, say critics within the community, are behind the silence that has musicians and choirs appearing at AIDS benefits for other affected communities, but holding paltry few for their own.

"I've been on the air for 17 years and not once has anybody approached me about doing an AIDS announcement of religious program to support or a benefit," said George Witcher, host of TCI Cable's Gospel Expression show and manager of Jay Caldwell and the Gospel Ambassadors.

"Understanding the nature of our business, the Good News never [condoned] homosexuality or sexual promiscuity of things that perpetuate the outbreak of disease," said Rev. Mitchell Taylor, director of promotions for Savoy Records, the oldest traditional gospel label.

"That's why you don't see benefits--because it's almost like sanctioning it." Flunder's concert in San Francisco last December, which drew the titans of Billboard Magazine's gospel music chart, was a rarity because it included acknowledgment that those singing were among those dying.

When more than 1,300 gospel music lovers attended the GospelAIDS benefit at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church in Philadelphia in April, they were treated to performances by some of the finest names in regional and national gospel music.

Tony-award winner Melba Moore and gospel veteran Dorothy Norwood were among the performers who lauded the audience for supporting Action AIDS, Philadelphia's largest volunteer-based AIDS organization.

But throughout the five hours of singing, dancing and clapping, no one from any of the 12 choirs got beyond the generic admonition that "no one is immune from this disease" to acknowledge that they had lost members to the disease as recently as this year. The only group to publicly return its performing fee was the Wilmington-Chester Mass Choir. Alan Bell, publisher of BLK, a Los Angeles-based magazine for lesbian and gay African Americans, said the record companies are in the best position financially to establish a fund for a community it has richly mined.

Sickness in seclusion

The silence often makes black gospel community AIDS patients put off seeking medical treatment.

"They go off in seclusion, just like a sick animal of something," said one Wilmington minister who denies persistent rumors about the nature of his own health problems. "Matter of fact, you heard of the term a loner? That's what they become. They are ashamed to go to places that provide help."

Flunder calls these people "church burned." She sees them when they come for classes and services offered by The Ark of Refuge, an agency she founded in San Francisco to provide housing, education, training and care partners for HIV/AIDS patients.

Flunder said she has a harder time convincing churchgoers with AIDS to seek health care than other AIDS patients. "When they come for services, they usually already have full-blown AIDS," she said.

Very often, these are men who grew up perfecting three-part harmony in high school and church choirs. Men like Gregory Cooper, a personal attendant to gospel legend Sally Martin and a protege of Cleveland and Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of gospel music. " He didn't hang out on the corners. He would go around taking folks out of their classes so they could go to rehearsal," Judith Cooper, of Chicago, said of her late son.

Being stereotyped as an "AIDS choir" is a growing concern. That's why some choirs require prospective members to supply a letter certifying church membership and a recommendation from a pastor. Some go as far as rejecting tenors with short-cropped hairstyles, studded fingernails and too much body "swishing" to avoid being stereotypes as a "gay choir."

Bobby Jones, host of a syndicated gospel music program watched by more than 4 million viewers each Sunday, speculates that James Cleveland's career might have been ruined if followers believed he was HIV positive.

Jones acknowledges that some viewers may be watching his Sunday program to see which choir director is losing weight. Yet only once has a musician said on the air that his sickness was due to AIDS.

That was Judith Cooper's son. It was during a Gospel Explosion concert in Barbados more than two years ago that Gregory Cooper, a musician in Jones' choir talked about the disease. It made front-page news there the next morning.

"Then he did it on my show [in the United States] and people prayed for him," said Jones, who presided over Cooper's funeral in Nashville last September.

After his backup singers and local choirs performed at the funeral, Jones invited Judith Cooper to speak. She introduced Nashville hospice workers and an AIDS volunteer, who ended the funeral by talking about methods and rates of transmission of the disease.

"That was my idea," Cooper said proudly.

And a very rare one, said Rev. Hobbs, who advocates turning gospel concerts into forums for AIDS education.

Delaware's Tracy Shy said she feels ready to break her silence at solo concerts and address the issue.

"I'm bursting," she said. "We're making our lives short."

[QRD main page] Last updated: 25 May 1995 by Chuck Tarver