In the moments before the carolers begin singing, everyone seems to hold his breath.
Doctors and staff peer down from the balconies. Patients have come, pulling along their IV poles or pushing themselves in wheelchairs. They are all anticipating a tradition that has endured for 70 years.
Here, under the dome of Johns Hopkins Hospital, at the foot of the marble statue of Christ, a small choir from a nearby church gathers every Christmas Eve to sing to the sick and those who care for them.
Sparked by a mother's gratitude, this choir from the Memorial Baptist Church at Caroline and Preston streets has not missed a year, not when they were forbidden to carol in the "white people's" wards, not when several inches of snow fell and some trudged more than three miles in the bitter cold. Some elderly members sang from their wheelchairs.
"That same love is still there as we go from generation to generation. We're there because we want to be there," said Stephen Arvinger, 49, who has sung at Hopkins for the past 30 years. He brought his 7-year-old granddaughter last night. His grandmother, Helen Wilson, who is 96, sang, as she has done from the beginning.
Last night, the carolers sang "Silent Night" and four other pieces at the statue. Some members swayed. Some tapped their toes. Others closed their eyes.
Then they began to follow in the footsteps of the first choir members, two by two through the wards, caroling and waving to patients, sometimes tiptoeing to bedsides to pat a hand or to say a prayer.
On the sixth floor, they were met by patients and family members. John Grabowski, 74, who had an aneurysm repaired, stood nearby. He whispered, "It's beautiful." Next to him, his daughter, Chris Obusek, listened and wiped her tears.
From a peppy "Deck the Halls" to a solemn "First Noel" to a low humming of "Beautiful Savior," the singers left smiles, tears and good wishes. "We're always happy to carry them some Christmas greetings," Wilson said, smiling, "and let them know that they're not forgotten."
Likewise, the scene the choir creates has been imprinted in the memories of many Baltimoreans.
During the holidays, especially on Christmas Eve, the hospital is quiet. Much of the staff is off. Dozens of patients who can be discharged have been. Under the dome, cherubs are suspended from a balcony, garlands line the railings, and three dozen poinsettias ring the statue.
Called the "Christus Consolator," or the "Divine Healer," the century-old sculpture with outstretched arms attracts patients, family and staff searching for healing and hope. They touch the cool marble and leave prayers and flowers.
Etched in the statue's base are the words from Matthew 11: 28, "Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest."
Many believe the sculpture symbolizes the compassion honored all religions, and the same sort of feeling pervades the Christmas Eve tradition, as the carolers' voices ring through the marble halls and up into the dome.
"It's almost a feeling of awe, a feeling of peace and tranquillity, because they sang with such power -- not necessarily volume -- but they just sang with a lot of very deep feeling," said Clyde R. Shallenberger, the senior chaplain at Hopkins for 30 years, who faithfully attended the caroling with his children and in later years brought his grandchildren.
"I don't get the same feeling hearing it anyplace else," he recalled, "as I do when I hear it being sung by them, around that statue."
The practice started at the request of Kate Johnson, who belonged to the church.
Her son, Abraham Lincoln Johnson, was a teen-ager working at a gas station in East Baltimore, according to Shallenberger's research and church members.
On July 26, 1926, a truck driver struck a match to light a cigarette, igniting gasoline fumes. Startled, Johnson pulled the nozzle out of the gas tank he was filling, spraying himself. He caught on fire.
He was taken to Hopkins, where he stayed for several months. Shortly after Thanksgiving, he was discharged, and his mother asked the pastor if the choir could sing at the feet of Jesus on Christmas Eve, in gratitude for the Hopkins staff who had saved his life.
The whereabouts of Abraham Johnson have been unknown to the church and the hospital for more than 20 years. But his mother's legacy has echoed through generations of church members, Hopkins staff and patients.
Brothers, aunts and grandfathers sang, side by side. In the Keene family, two sisters, two brothers -- including the pastor, Calvin Keene -- a niece and a nephew sang.
Some people have joined the choir from other churches during the holidays just so they can sing at Hopkins.
One cancer patient was so moved a few years ago that she swore if she recovered, she would return with them. She did, and last year she sang a solo on the oncology ward.
A makeshift parade forms as the choir makes its rounds, with some staff, patients and family members following and singing along.
An hour into the singing, Wilson, the 96-year-old, got into a wheelchair for the remainder of the trip. And the youngest one, 7-year-old Charlisa Cheatham, slipped off her shiny black shoes and pulled on a pair of hospital peds.
Dr. John Collins Harvey, who spent 30 years at Hopkins, $H described it this way: "It's just a wonderful, cozy feeling. You can let your mind wander, and you can revel in the loveliness of the sound."
In his first year as a resident, 1947, he was assigned to the Christmas Eve shift. Homesick and depressed about his abilities, he planned to quit medicine. Standing on one of the balconies, he listened to the choir, and their voices comforted him. A few moments after they moved on to the wards, a porter called to Harvey, handing him a package.
It was a box wrapped in brown paper and tied in red string. Inside was fresh holly. He realized it was from a poor Eastern Shore woman he had treated earlier that year. She had taken a four-hour bus ride to leave him the home-grown gift.
At that moment, he could hear snatches of the choir's verses.
"I knew then what I had wanted to know for some time," he said in an interview. He realized he could, and would, be a doctor.
Harvey went on to be chief resident, professor of medicine and director of the outpatient department at Hopkins.
His account was published in the Saturday Evening Post. His daughter has created her own tradition of reading the story to her children every Christmas Eve.
In Harvey's early years, the staff lived in the hospital and many more people were treated on an inpatient basis. Since then, the audience has dwindled. Private rooms have replaced the wards of 15 beds separated by curtains.
Blacks and whites were once segregated, and until the late 30s, the choir was limited to what were called the "colored" wards.
In the past five years, as the neighborhood has become more dangerous, the choir no longer carols through the streets.
But as long as the young replace the old, they will continue to gather at the statue every Christmas Eve.
One of the newest singers, Ebony Faison, 14, wanted to carol this year because she sang to the residents of a nursing home and that made her feel good.
And every year, both the sick and the ones comforting them are touched.
Last year, a nurse on one floor asked the choir to sing softly because a man in a nearby room was dying. Somehow, though, he managed to beckon even as the choir was walking away.
Rosie Keene, 75, who was there, said the patient's whispers were almost indistinguishable. Then they realized he was trying to say, "Holy."
The choir quickly arranged themselves, a few inside his room and the rest just outside, to sing, "O Holy Night":
"A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. O hear the angel voices! O night divine. "
Not long after the last strains, the man passed away.
Pub Date: 12/25/96