The gospel choir of Good Shepherd Baptist Church will leave loved ones and Christmas presents in Baltimore this year to praise God in the land of their savior. A week later, they will return bearing gifts that cannot be bought.
To sing in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, says Hosea Chew, is on a spiritual par with the birth of his only child, and not unlike, he says, a child's anticipation of Christmas itself.
"I knew my daughter was coming, but the true feeling did not hit me until birth was given," says the 32-year-old Chew, assistant director of the 25-member choir. "To be in the area where Jesus was born and lived and was baptized is something I've always had in the back of my mind, but I never thought I'd see it. I'm going to miss my family, but they're eager to hear and see the change in me once I return."
That change -- a strengthening of the spirit -- is a matter of nuance to some believers and pure revelation for others, says Janie Saulsbury, a three-time visitor to the Holy Land who has been in the Good Shepherd choir for nearly a decade.
"Going there makes you feel differently about being a Christian," says Saulsbury. "When we took the boat ride on the Sea of Galilee it was very rough and the sky was overcast. It reminded me of how Christ had to calm his disciples and calm the sea. It gave you a sense of how it might have been."
This chance to sing their hearts out in the cradle of their faith -- with performances scheduled for Christmas Day in Jerusalem and the day after in Nazareth -- will cost each member about $1,600. Good Shepherd has put on a few pass-the-basket concerts at their church -- the former Shaarei Zion synagogue built at Park Heights and Hilldale Avenues in 1926.
It especially pleases Andrew Giles, a deacon at Good Shepherd and the last living founder of the 42-year-old church, to hear God's word preached in a temple.
"Jewish people were our beginning, the chosen people of God, you understand?" says the 77-year-old Giles, who says he "never had a particular dream" about going to Israel but looks forward to hearing the choir's stories when they come back.
While some members are still scrambling for funds, it is expected that all will be on hand to belt out "Go Tell It on the Mountain" for an Israeli public with a taste for African-American gospel.
Each January, the government of Israel begins advertising around the world for Christian choirs to perform the following Christmas. Good Shepherd, the only black gospel group invited, is one of two American choirs selected this year.
"What appealed to me was their excitement, their movements," said Adina Hano, an Israeli tourism official. "They're not just static, standing there. They're alive. They really get you going."
The annual singing trip to the Holy Land has been organized for the past 30 years -- ever since Israel reclaimed all of Jerusalem after the Six Day War -- by David Meier, a 63-year-old Sunday School teacher and travel agent living in suburban Fort Worth, Texas.
This year's concerts also will celebrate the 3,000-year anniversary of Jerusalem.
"The Israelis wanted a solid black choir that sang with soul and heart and that's Good Shepherd. They love American gospel music over there and don't seem to mind the words at all," says Meier. "They're not totally sympathetic with the way we position Jesus as the Messiah, especially the Orthodox. Before the last election, our Jerusalem concerts were at a theater in the convention center. This year we'll be at the YMCA."
Meier began his tours three decades ago with a couple of high school choirs from Texas. Now, choral groups from around the country approach him for the opportunity.
For the past two years, Good Shepherd music director Rodney Whitley has worked for the chance to take his singers to the birthplace of Christ.
The choir Whitley put together for the Holy Land shows comprises the bulk of the Good Shepherd choir augmented by a half-dozen or so singers from other local churches.
"What we're doing is unique to black American culture," says Whitley, whose reputation as a choir director at the tender age of 28 has attracted scores of new members to Good Shepherd. "Gospel is the word of God through a celebration of music."
And to make that celebration in the fabled towns of Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth is a privilege that gets to the point of Christmas so often overlooked in the United States says Janie Saulsbury.
"I am blessed," she says. "Blessed, blessed, blessed."
Pub Date: 12/12/96