Founders, from left, Larry A. Jones, Geraldine Scrutchins, the Rev. Derrick Roberts and Brian K. Thomas.
On a Tuesday evening in mid-June at St. Paul AME Zion Church, the Toledo Interfaith Mass Choir was in rehearsal for a Sunday concert at Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, 640 Indiana Ave., that will mark 25 years since the choir's founding. It was a hot night, and the practice was running well past 9 p.m. The Rev. Derrick Roberts, 62, the choir's director, knew the choir‘s strength was flagging.
“I do all of this, and I'm hollering like this [he sings a loud note], and y'all are like, whew. Y'all can't open your mouth. You may not be able to do what I do. You know how I do what I do? By the power of God. I'm as tired as you. ... But the lord has renewed my strength.”
Rev. Roberts told the choir that his focus as a choir director has changed over the years and now emphasizes praise. “All I was concerned about in my younger day was diction, posture, breathing, and perfection; and now, praise, worship, diction, posture, and breathing and perfection. I added two more things in there. And they are first on the list.”
Members of the Toledo Interfaith Mass Choir rehearse at the St. Paul AME Zion Church in Toledo.
Yes, he is preaching a bit. He has been called “reverend” and “doctor” for a long time, but he actually became a reverend June 12. His father, the Rev. John Roberts, pastor of Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, ordained him. Ordained ministry is “a test, people don't know,” Rev. Derrick Roberts said. “I just said, well, since I paid the price, I might as well accept the calling.” Rev. Roberts said that his doctorate is in humane letters, an honorary degree. But the titles don't influence his music direction.
The choir's musical purpose is to preserve traditional gospel music, according to the history printed in its programs. But glorifying is the Christian choir’s religious intention. Rev. Roberts is well-versed in gospel as music and word.
The group started as the Toledo Mass Choir in 1989 when the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses held an annual convention in Toledo. The city made its impression with a choir of 667 voices, combined from many churches and directed by Mr. Roberts. It was said to be the largest in the convention's history.
The Toledo Interfaith Mass Choir traces back to that mass choir, although it identifies 2003 as its year of inception. “We transitioned our name as a result of ministering for the [city-wide] Martin Luther King celebration,” Rev. Roberts said. The choir, today having more than 100 members from about 40 churches, has become one of the anchors of Toledo's annual MLK Day ceremony, and the choir has toured, too, including performing in Boston and in Florida. “Always we've sung at all different churches, denominations, universities, events, festivals, and annual concerts at the Peristyle and the Stranahan,” Rev. Roberts said.
Alto Pearl Humphrey, right, raises her voice during the rehearsal.
For the performance at Indiana Avenue Missionary Baptist Church, at 5:25 p.m. Sunday, Rev. Roberts said, “We decided rather than sell tickets, we wanted to celebrate and not have people pay for our 25th celebration.” There will be a “time of giving,” though.
Robin Hall and other members during the choir’s rehearsal.
The ties to the national convention continue to be important, as Rev. Roberts became the chairman of the convention‘s board in 2010. In the days before the “interfaith” re-formation, local gospel convention members continued to attend the national meeting. “We will be receiving our 25-year pin this year at the convention in New Orleans,” Interfaith Choir president Marvin March said.
A few of the founders gathered with Rev. Roberts after the rehearsal and shared in some good-natured banter. “All I do is I do what I'm told,” Mr. Roberts said. “They've been bossing me around for 25 years.” He singled out a member of the executive board: “The greatest thorn in my flesh would be Geraldine Scrutchins. Thorn,” he joked. He said later, “After all these years, that's what's kept us together, our humor.” About his cofounders, he said, “I know one thing. We started out as a committee and we evolved into a family.”
On Sunday, a family sing-along of sorts will mark the 25th year of the mass choir's existence. Rev. Roberts is doing his best to have the choir ready for the public. At the rehearsal, he said, “The audience is waiting to receive. Give them something to receive. Amen.” And he led them in “This Little Light of Mine.”