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National choir shares message through music

"Music is more powerful than people think," said Mount Airy resident Sandy Day, who has sung with the National Christian Choir for 16 years.

"We are 170 voices singing in four-part and sometimes five- or six-part harmony," said choir director Kathy Bowman. "When they listen, some say this is a little slice of what they imagine heaven to be like. It doesn't come off as a performance, but more like a worship event."

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The National Christian Choir, which has members from more than 100 churches within a five-state region surrounding the greater Washington, D.C., area, presents about 12 concerts a year at venues near and far.

The choir rehearses Monday evenings in Rockville from late August through late May, except for the Easter and Christmas holidays, and holds open auditions after every concert. Its members come from many Christian denominations.

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"It's really very inspiring to come together every Monday night with Presbyterians and Roman Catholics and Baptists and Methodists and every stripe and flavor of Christianity that you can imagine, and we are all there because we love to sing praises to God," said Loretta Spangler, of Westminster, a five-year member of the choir.

"This is a glorious way to worship the Lord," said Day. "I am singing with a varied but committed group of Christians. It is good music and well directed, and I'm singing music I probably wouldn't be able to sing elsewhere."

The concert experience

"The choir sings by memory, so faces are visible," Bowman said. "They sing with so much love and commitment that audiences are mesmerized by the intentionality they see. There's something almost tangible in the room."

"We have people who praise God with us with hands raised," Day said of the choir's performances. "We see people in tears and we hear stories from those who were not going to come but were glad they did, or said it was extra meaningful because of something that has happened or some need in their lives. It is an incredible experience."

The choir goes into the audience for the last song. "We leave the risers and go down the aisles to surround the people, and then Kathy Bowman gives a final prayer," Day said.

At most concerts the choir is accompanied by four musicians - playing piano, keyboard with a synthesizer, bass guitar and percussion - but a full orchestra is hired for its Christmas performances.

The choir only charges admission for the Christmas concerts, held annually in Silver Spring and biannually in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The agreement that choir members sign provides for one annual tour date taking them out of the region - but this year they toured to Nashville, Tennessee, in February, and Wisconsin the first weekend in May, when they sang for capacity audiences in Wausau and Appleton, including an 1,800-seat venue at Appleton's Alliance Church. In September, the choir will have an overnight trip to Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Day said the group has a good reason for taking extra out-of-town tour dates this year. "We are celebrating our 30th anniversary," she said.

Musical ministries

Bowman not only directs the choir, she prepares its weekly one-hour radio show, "Psalm 95," heard on 320 stations nationally and internationally. Bowman said it features "songs by the choir and a short commentary on some sort of practical life help, like dealing with disappointment," or topics based on hymns.

"The radio station in Wisconsin wanted us to come out because there is apparently a very large following for our radio program there," Spangler said. "On our website you can hear our most recent four broadcasts."

The choir currently has 27 CDs available for purchase and is in the process of recording its next album, "Called to Worship."

The choir has a few paid employees, including a full-time administrative assistant, a full-time business administrator, its regular musicians and the director.

Transportation, lodging and expenses on the road are paid by each individual member of the choir, but there is an Assistance Fund. Choir members can confidentially ask for help with trip expenses, if necessary.

The choir raises money through the sale of CDs, freewill offerings taken at concerts, donations and an annual golf tournament, to be held June 19 at The Links at Gettysburg.

The choir also helps raise funds for other causes. For 11 years, the choir has performed an annual benefit concert in Salisbury, raising close to $80,000 for the Magi Fund, supporting two Christian crisis centers serving the Delmarva region. The choir also performed a benefit concert for Gaithersburg HELP, a community organization that helps those in crisis. "Our concert raised almost $10,000 for them," Day said.

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Unity in mission

Spangler described the choir as being "very much like a family."

"I can honestly say that everyone gets along with everyone else in a really good way. I love the group and I love doing this," she said.

Spangler said her choir mates are in agreement on the basics of the Christian faith: "That Jesus is the Son of God and is our Lord and Savior and that we take the Bible as the guidelines for our life," she said. "Everybody signs a statement to that effect," she said of the membership.

Day said, "Because I am sharing this experience with wonderful Christians in the NCC, I am a better Christian."

"We feel we offer a message of hope and encouragement," said Bowman. "Some people receive that best through music. It touches a chord or emotion in them. Our mission is to help people lead positive and effective lives, and we feel that message comes across in our music."

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