The PAA Gospel Choir Mission
“The look on their faces when they first join the choir is nervousness,” says Drechelle McCray, an English teacher at Portland (Ore.) Adventist Academy (PAA) and the director of the school’s Gospel Choir club.
P.J. Fa'aletonu Jr., a PAA senior, remembers it: “My freshman year a bunch of us were new, and I remember her pointing to us when we weren’t singing much. She called each of us out individually to sing, and it actually helped me not to be afraid.”
McCray is sensitive to the fact that most students didn’t grow up listening to gospel music and are hesitant to sing out. But she has a way of bringing out shy voices. It’s a skill she’s been honing since she began the choir with eight students nine years ago.
“They are being challenged to sing in ways they have never sung before,” she says. And it’s not just a new way of singing. For many, it’s a new way of experiencing a culture different from their own.
To help her students further experience the deep meanings in gospel music, McCray, along with John Carter, PAA’s music department head, recently enrolled several choir members in a gospel choir workshop taught by skilled choir directors, soloists and professors of music at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
“I was excited that students were able to learn a brief history of gospel music,” says McCray. “To learn its origin and its importance in the American fabric may help students have a greater appreciation for the style.”
“I got to learn about why gospel music was so important to slaves,” says Fa'aletonu. “The songs were actually hidden messages to help them escape slavery and give hope.
Fa'aletonu says the best moment of the workshop was hearing Callie Day, a gospel music soloist, sing “Hear My Prayer.” “I actually cried during Callie’s performance," says Fa'aletonu. "You have to see her performance to hear her amazing range and how she adds unusual riffs and runs. It was amazing!”
The PAA Gospel Choir has grown to 60 members and offers a unique experience alongside an impressive number of other music options at the school. Two choirs, two orchestras, a band, a steel drum band, guitar, music theory, and performance and production are among the ways PAA students learn music.
What makes Gospel Choir an anomaly is that it is driven entirely on sacrifice. Students don’t receive academic credit because the choir is a club not a class. Students give up a long lunch period once a week to practice. The choir doesn’t charge dues but depends solely on the donations and support of its advocates.
And McKray gives the most. Even while working full time, having two babies, serving as a worship director in her church and recently completing a master’s degree, McCray gives her time and energy to continue this mission.
“My personal mission statement for my career is ‘to be the teacher I didn’t have,’” says McCray. “With that comes a responsibility to look past my reality and push further. … I must tap into God's superpower. If I believe His words and know that He will give me strength and can do exceedingly abundantly above what I can ask or think, then I have to keep pushing. I tell the students that the choir, under my leadership, is year to year and not guaranteed. I stop when God says stop.”
The mission of the PAA Gospel Choir is to share the good news of Jesus. McCray says the students are taking that mission to heart. “They know the responsibility placed on them every time they open their mouths to sing," she says. "I remind them that this isn't just about them. The words they sing are supposed to inspire and give someone hope. We serve a living God who can do great things. We have to approach each performance as a witness to someone else and to help them see Christ reflected and to learn about Him. This may be someone’s first time hearing about God or their last, so we have to make it count.
In reminding her students the choir isn’t about them, McCray reminds herself as well. “This choir is greater than me," she explains. "When students tell me how some of these songs helped them through tough times, then I know it's worth it. When students have graduated and continued singing gospel music through college, I know it's worth it. This ministry isn't about me. I'm choosing to listen and be used as a vessel. God can and will use anything to get His message across: talking donkeys, closing mouths of lions, opening seas and calming storms. And if I chose not to listen He will use someone else to spread His word.”
Greg Phillips, Pleasant Valley Adventist Church associate pastor and former PAA chaplain, was a sounding board to McCray when God began to impress this mission on her heart.
“I believe there is no such thing as wasted encouragement,” says Philips. “I knew students would be into it, and it would add an extra layer of texture to PAA’s music program. But at the time, I never would have thought there might be a choir nine years later with so many students. And one of my own, at that.”
Phillips’ oldest daughter has been singing in the choir for two years. “It’s been awesome to hear Keely singing these songs around home. And really, she’s singing from her heart," Phillips says. "You can tell it’s more than a performance to the students.”
McCray says she has too many gospel favorites to choose, but one favorite is "Jesus Promised," which is also a choir favorite. "I teach songs that I have grown up listening to," she explains.
The Gospel Choir interacts with God every Tuesday. It’s not just a practice session but a prayer meeting. It’s not just a ministry but a mission. And if McCray’s mission is fulfilled, it will live on in her students far beyond PAA.
“I want them to take love for Jesus with them," McCray says. "I want them to question who He is and want to know more about Him. I want them to build a personal relationship with Christ and know that He has promised He will never leave them.”
“It’s so important to me,” affirms Fa'aletonu. “It’s more than just praying. It’s my favorite way to interact with God.”
The PAA Gospel Choir performs their signature song, Jesus Promised, for the Festival of Choirs concert at Walla Walla University’s 2018 Black History Month celebration. (Video by Desiree Rinza.)
Hear PAA’s Gospel Choir’s spring concert during alumni weekend, May 3–5, 2019.