WASHINGTON — The rabbi’s e-mail inquiry to the black pastor last spring was blunt: How crazy would it be to start a Jewish gospel choir? And would you help?
Soon after, the Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of Turner Memorial AME Church in Hyattsville, Md., put Rabbi Shira Stutman, the elfin spark-plug spiritual leader at the downtown Jewish center Sixth & I, in touch with his younger brother, Marty Lamar, Turner’s assistant musical leader.
Thus last summer, the 6th in the City Chorus was born.
Interfaith efforts – folks from different spiritual backgrounds joining for community service or clergy discussing scripture – are one thing. But a black Christian worship leader teaching a bunch of mostly Jewish young novice singers to belt out Hebrew prayers set to gospel music?
“We laughed and said: ‘This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of. But wouldn’t it be a gift back to God if we were able to do it?’” chuckled Marty Lamar, 35, a soft-spoken, 6-foot-5 man who was an actor in professional musical theater and a teacher before coming to Turner.
The 21-person chorus, which Stutman calls a “ragtag group,” began meeting on Monday nights with Lamar to practice. The chorus has sung at several services, including one at a Baltimore synagogue and Sixth & I’s popular high-holiday events in the fall.
But recently the fledgling choir had its biggest audiences so far, performing at two raucous, jampacked Martin Luther King Jr. worship services – one Friday night at the synagogue and one Sunday morning at the church.
The hybrid choir represents a new phase in the decades-old relationship between Turner and Sixth & I.
On paper, the two communities couldn’t appear more different from each other, but for more than 50 years Turner occupied the same unusual domed building that is now home to Sixth & I. Many of Turner’s members were baptized, were married or have mourned in what is now the Jewish worship and cultural center.
Turner members have come back each year for interfaith efforts since the church moved to Prince George’s County in 2002, but people on both sides say the relationship has recently begun to deepen, bolstered in part by younger clergy and congregants who are more comfortable talking about fraught topics such as race and religion.
To Cozette Jackson, 51, who grew up in what she calls “the old Turner,” there was unifying power in being able to belt out lyrics about Jesus as she danced and sang in the aisles of Sixth & I on Friday night. There was also power in hearing younger members of the Sixth & I chorus describe how excited they were to sing gospel music.
“It was like, ‘Wow, they’re accepting of it.’ And it’s not about Jesus; it’s all about praising God,” said Jackson, who leads the Agape dance ministry at Turner and is in its Koinonia Choir, which also sang at Sixth & I.
The connection between Turner and Sixth & I goes back to the early 1950s and extends across a period when the spiritual geography of Washington dramatically changed, and then changed again.
Relations between blacks and Jews, both urban outsiders, grew close during the civil rights era and then drifted, or were severed, depending on your view. Ideas about interfaith collaboration came into general vogue, but many people felt they remained superficial.
A man named Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from seminary, became a global figure for justice and was assassinated.
Over the past decade, Turner’s choir and some members continued to come back each Martin Luther King weekend for a service honoring King and Jewish civil rights leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It recognized blacks’ and Jews’ shared focus on justice.
It’s not rare for African-American and Jewish communities around the country to partner. For a decade, members of Adas and Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ have met regularly to work on projects related to hunger, veterans’ needs and Darfur. They also hold a music and worship event on Martin Luther King weekend.
“The MLK Shabbat” at Sixth & I draws the largest annual crowd for a shabbat – or sabbath – event, and all 800 seats on the ground floor and balconies were full Friday night.
But a few years ago, Stutman and Bill Lamar, Turner’s new pastor, started asking each other: How deep is this relationship, really?
They compared their congregations. Turner’s is on the older side, filled with lifetime members who tend to be devout.
The church sits on a quiet suburban hilltop in Hyattsville. Sixth & I caters almost exclusively to childless young professionals, many of whom who see Judaism more as a culture than a religion, something that offers an intellectual structure for thinking about justice and equality.
Stutman and Pastor Lamar come from a younger, franker generation of clergy who know they have to work to be relevant.
Stutman is open about being attracted to gospel because she felt its positive energy could seriously help Jewish congregations, some of which hold people who sit in services but “feel nothing.” Lamar tells his congregants they need to “do more” for the disenfranchised. He speaks often about his ambivalence about the “Santa Clausification” of King by blacks and others who don’t do more during the year.
The two communities, their clergy concluded, could and should do more together, despite their differences.
Stutman and Lamar now meet regularly to pore over scripture. Some Sixth & I members went to Turner over Christmas for an all-black Christmas show called Black Nativity, based on a Langston Hughes book.
But so far, the Jewish gospel choir is their most creative collaboration.
There were discussions about whether the word “gospel” should be included in its name (Stutman desperately wanted to but decided against it because “gospel” really means “the good news of Jesus”) and how to take the heavily minor, somber key of Jewish music and adapt it to the upbeat major key of much of gospel.
This weekend was the first time Sixth & I had come to Turner’s service in honor of King.
For Ben Funk, a Sixth & I choir member and one of about 30 who went Sunday to Turner, the emotion of the shared singing worship was intense.
“I don’t want to read or write or do anything else today,” he said after the Sunday event. “Whatever went on and the emotion of that – I just want to let it subside on its own.”
It was the same Friday night at Sixth & I, where the aisles were jammed during the service with people black and white, holding hands and dancing in a long line and singing.
The Lamar brothers wore yarmulkes, and “Amens!” kept erupting from the rows where Turner members sat.
Pastor Lamar took the pulpit with a graphic message about the cause of justice that both communities say united them: It’s “all good” that we’re here singing and praying, “but unless we’re willing to give something up, our work here is essentially masturbatory; it stimulates but produced no offspring.”
But he believed in the communities being there, together, he told the rapt audience.
“Often when I come into situations like this, I’m troubled that the tradition of my ancestors doesn’t become a traveling black church road show. But my belief is we are here to worship, and be transformed.”