Christell Engram-Benson fulfilled a longtime dream when she started a community gospel choir three years ago. What the 63-year-old Great Falls woman never dreamed was that her Great Falls Community Gospel Choir would be invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City in February, 2020.
“Who would have ever thought that?” she said. “They have never had a gospel choir from Montana sing there.” The singers will join their voices with people from all over the world in a 200-voice choir. They will be accompanied by a full orchestra under director and composer, Joseph Martin.
Gary Prue, who is the choir’s production manager, is excited about the Carnegie Hall invitation. His musical background in various types of music—leading a rock and roll band in the 60s, directing a barbershop group, singing in a quartet, and more—gives him a unique perspective.
“You can’t describe the feeling of singing with that many people,” he stated. “Doing things like this helps everyone improve.”
According to Prue, singing in the gospel choir is a ministry, a way of using a God-given gift. He and his wife joined the Mount Olive Christian Fellowship because they sang the old Southern gospel music he loved. Engram-Benson led the choir there.
“She can play the piano till it smokes,” he said. “She is cool with God and just inspires everyone in that way.”
Prue said music helps him minister to other people.
“I’m not very good at speaking, but I can sing and play instruments. Gospel music is written from Scripture, so music’s my way to minister the word to others,” he said.
Engram-Benson’s dad was a pastor who grew up in Barbados. He led his musical family as they performed in churches all over the South. She accompanied them on the piano as early as age 10 and eventually attended music school and brought music to everywhere she lived after leaving home.
“I’m full of music, I’m made of music, I exude music,” she said.
In addition to all the choirs she started, including one at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Engram-Beson never let go of the desire for a community choir.
“What I wanted to be birthed from it is unity in the community,” she said. “What better way to do that than through music, through singing in harmony.”
She said no one has to audition, because no one needs to be perfect to sing for God.
“It’s not up to me to judge, it’s up to God, because gospel music is about making a joyful noise to him. If you have a voice, you can sing. And everyone has a voice,” she said.
She is firm about some things, however.
Audiences won’t see any shuffling of papers. Singers memorize the songs so they can focus on what they are singing about. She stated gospel music must be sung from the heart, from within, expressing joy with an exuberance and excitement that touches the audience. Listeners show their joy by standing, clapping, or simply letting go of their pain or trouble for the moment.
The Great Falls Community Gospel Choir brings their music to all kinds of events in Great Falls and around Montana. They sang the National Anthem when the Harlem Globe Trotters were in town, at Black History events, at concerts, weddings, funerals, and more. Their music is particularly appreciated at assisted living and senior living facilities.
Choir member and snowbird Sherry Beavers is not going to Carnegie Hall.
“It’s cold in New York, too,” she joked. But for her, singing is not about performing for people.
“We are singing to the Lord,” she said. “It’s one more avenue to fill me with gratefulness for what I have, rather than thinking of what I’ve lost.”
For Engram-Benson, spirituality is more than an accompaniment. Prayer begins and ends each practice session. She noted the choir boasts singers from 15 different denominations, and none are made to feel better than or worse because of the church they attend.
The Great Falls Community Gospel Choir committed to taking 21 singers to New York in February. They’ve been invited to bring twice that many, and Engram-Benson would love to do that. For many seniors in the group, it’s a dream come true.
The unity Christell wants to see birthed is not just for her singers but also for the listeners. As Prue expressed it, when a group sings well, they feed the audience, and if the audience feels it, they will feed the singers in return, encouraging them to sing even better.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Ingram-Benson. MSN
Readers may help the choir raise $40,000 needed for the trip. Contact Christell Engram-Benson at 406 868-6797 for information about the choir, how to join, how to schedule an appearance, or how to donate to this not-for-profit organization. Donations may be sent to Great Fall Community Gospel Choir, Christell Engram-Benson, 1027 First Avenue South, Great Falls, MT 59401.