One of my favorite singers in the world is a woman from one of my home churches in Baltimore named Sheila Thomas. Sis. Sheila wasn’t one of those emotional singers who wailed and sweated or reared back when she hit a good note or even closed her eyes if the song got real good to her. She would look so serious and stand so rigidly still beside the choir loft that she almost looked terrified when she sang. But honey, when that heifer opened her mouth, she would take you straight to the throne of Jesus. She has one of those rich, deep alto voices that reminded me of Anita Baker, Cassandra Wilson, or Gladys Knight. I loved her voice so much that I could not wait to get older and for my voice to drop down to the alto range. One of my favorite solos by Sis. Sheila was a song simply titled, “Grace.” Remembering her voice, that song, and the palpable love of the congregation at the then Highway Church of Christ on Hayward Avenue immediately takes me back to being a little girl who was learning how to love God for the first time.
“Grace” wasn’t a fancy song with a lot of lyrics, but when the Voices of Christ (who are, by the way, the ONE and ONLY choir in the world to me) finished singing, there typically wasn’t a dry eye or an unmoved heart in the house. While I loved the entire song, my favorite part was the end when Sis Sheila, who was solidly posted, focused, and seemingly gripping the microphone for dear life began singing
Grace of God
Sweet grace of God
That taught me
Never left me
When those legendary Voices sopranos came in after Sis Sheila, most notably the late great Marlene Ferguson and my late godmother Barbara Bailey, child you just might as well throw yourself on the floor and bring a prayer cloth with you on the way down. By the time the altos and tenors joined in, it was pure heaven in that sanctuary. And don’t let it be a Sunday when Deacon Pender (now Bishop Pender), the Voices’ awesome director, was REALLY feeling that song. He would walk from the front of the pulpit to the back of the sanctuary and make the choir hold stratospheric notes in that song for at least five minutes. (Side note: The sanctuary on Hayward Ave seemed MUCH larger when I was a kid. In actuality that middle aisle was probably the length of a good-sized, one-bedroom apartment.)
Those 10-15 minutes (and sometimes as much as 20 minutes!) when Sis. Sheila and the Voices sang “Grace,” I felt for the first time as a kid what I now know to be the presence of God. And as I got older and began to understand the lyrics of this beautiful song for myself, I recognize truly what a gift that grace is. It’s nothing that I can ever earn or ever be worthy of. But for some odd reason God looks down on my flawed and imperfect soul and blesses me with another day of grace just because. There’s NEVER a moment that I can think about that without crying tears of gratitude (Yes, I am literally holding back the tears and snot at the Busboys and Poets in Shirlington as I type).
While I only spent four years of my childhood at Highway (now Beth-El Temple), that congregation and it’s music ministry became the blueprint for every church I have attended as an adult. If ever I get off track with my faith or suddenly forget just how incredibly blessed I am, all I have to do is close my eyes, imagine a miniature me with big, thick ponytails, a huge flowered dress, lace ankle socks, and patent leather Mary Janes sitting on a hard pew in a small, cozy church listening to one bad alto singing about God’s unmerited, unlimited, and unfailing grace.