Walk into the music room of Central Steele Creek Presbyterian Church on a Wednesday evening, and you will be greeted by good-natured teasing and laughter as the members of the Disciples, a men's gospel choir, meet to practice. Ranging in age from 41 to 90, the 18-member group started as a quartet in 1999 under the directorship of Joy Cheek.
Now directed by Linda Blackwelder, the group is known throughout southern Mecklenburg and beyond. “Their mission is to give the word of God in song,” she says.
Blackwelder says the men have a real love for what they do and for each other. Someone in the group inquired after Richard Hayes, who was absent recovering from surgery. “When one of them is sick or in trouble, “ she says, “the others are all there to help.”
As Blackwelder raises her hand to begin the practice, banter ceases and the men get down to the business of perfecting their music. Only about eight of the 18 can read music. The others learn by repetition and lots of practice. Only two have a musical background. The others just sing for the joy of it.
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Baritones and tenors fill the small room as they sing “Lord Listen to Your Children Praying.”
A discussion follows as the director, pianist and singers try to work out a passage in one of the songs. The church pastor, Luke Maybry, stops by and listens for a while.
The men come from all walks of life. A little more than half are native to the South and the rest are transplants from other parts of the country. Some, like Gary Russell, still work, and others – about half the membership – are retired. They belong to different churches, but come together to participate in the group.
Blackwelder first came to Mecklenburg County in 1959 as a flight attendant for Eastern Air Lines. She later worked for Celanese, and then as an insurance adjuster (“She couldn't hold a job,” joked one of her singers.) When Blackwelder, a longtime friend of the former director, was asked to take over as director of the group, she says, “It was the answer to my prayers from years ago. I always had wanted to direct a men's choir.”
The group is in constant demand, performing in a multi-county area including York, Iredell, Cabarrus, Union, Gaston, and, of course, Mecklenburg, Blackwelder says.
They go to retirement communities, prisons and church gatherings, and are often invited back for repeat performances.
On their annual schedule are an Armed Forces Day concert and a Christmas concert at Old Steele Creek Presbyterian Church.