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Music lifts the soul at Union Missionary Baptist
Without sheet music, only memory, Dorothy Caesar-Reed's fingers hit the piano keys with quick, fluid strokes just like they've done nearly every Sunday for a half-century.
Dressed cheerfully in pink at this service, the self-taught pianist sang along when the mood suited her. The words she knew by heart, her voice a soft one amid those of the choir members in gold robes who filled the church with song.
Last Sunday marked Union Missionary Baptist church's 86th anniversary and members celebrated simply with an afternoon potluck. Although a small congregation, its flock — predominantly black — is a devoted one. Many of them have attended this church for decades.
The Rev. James Crittenden began his service with a song. Another followed. When he wasn't singing along, he sat listening to the choir, his toe tapping the floor.
Heal my body, turn me around
Ain't nobody do me like Jesus
He's my friend
Here, gospel music gets to the heart of the matter.
“Oh Lord, without that music we're lost,” said Lula Hall, the choir's president. “I feel happy when I sing. I feel God in my heart. It's a feeling you can't explain, you know.
“I love the fellowship and I love the members. When I miss church on Sunday, the whole week goes blah.”
She added that the church used to have a “packed house” every Sunday. But many members grew old and passed away. Children grew up and moved to bigger cities. Military families got transferred. But the hope is for a new generation to fill the pews someday.
Much of the church's history is unwritten but for the names of old pastors kept in a file drawer. The church burned down, but was quickly rebuilt, in the mid-1990s.
“It gives you the family atmosphere,” said Crittenden, a preacher at Union Baptist for 18 years. “We want you to feel like you're at home when you come here.”
If they attend, they are sure to hear a choir sing with fervor.
I don't have a closet religion
I got to let the world know wherever I go
I got to praise and serve the Lord
The church's musician since 1958, Caesar-Reed's early memories are of making music with spoons. When she was 8, her mom bought her an old piano.
She's never had music lessons. She mostly plays by ear.
“It's just coming from here,” she said, tapping her finger to her forehead.
Years ago she had a band that traveled and performed at churches in other cities. She's raised six children, all of whom now live in Phoenix.
Seldom missing a Sunday service, she's known to launch into a ragtime jam when the mood strikes.
“It just gets all in me and I love it. They say my music sounds like blues, but it's just my own thing.”
Helen Dees sang in the choir until a year ago. Now she's content to just listen.
“We used to have a humongous choir,” Dees said. Her children used to sing in church, too. They've moved away, but she plans to attend this church until she's no longer able to.
“To me it's like a simple church,” Dees said. “Some are so big you don't get to know people.”
The Rev. George Martin sang “Amazing Grace” before his sermon and led the congregation in prayer. As they held hands, they prayed for the elderly shut-ins, the sick and the holiday travelers.
At the end of the service, Mike and Elsie Harris said they hoped their solo performances sounded good. Elsie began singing in church as a child.
“When I first started to sing, I'd get nervous, but not anymore,” she said. Their goal is a simple one: “We're just trying to glorify God.”
For her husband, singing the gospel is an emotional thing.
“There's nothing better when you can get that feeling in your soul,” he said. “It just lifts you.”