By K.A. Davis
Fort Wayne, Ind. – The Voices of Unity (VOU) Youth Choir, led by Marshall White, presented a soul-stirring celebration of soulful sacred music on Sunday, Jan. 8 at IPFW’s Rhinehart Music Center. The VOU Praise Celebration, which carried the theme “Another Breakthrough,” provided uplifting moments and reflections of all the good work that has been accomplished since White founded the choir in 2000.
Melissa Montana, CEO of WLAB, Star 88.3, served as master of ceremonies for the evening. Chris Ford, Abundant Life music minister and choir mentor, offered words of inspiration and IPFW administrator Kenneth Christmon welcomed the audience to the more than 50 year-old school. Christmon said IPFW is proud to have been the place where UNITY has called home for all of its 16 years.
Mark Robison, president of Brotherhood Mutual, sponsor of the event, noted that his company celebrates what the VOU organization has accomplished and ascribes their success to the Lord.
Eric Doden, CEO of Greater FW, Inc. noted that his organization and local businesses are wise to support groups like UNITY because they recognize the economic development value that such character-building groups have on the entire community.
After an opening prayer by Cedric Walker of Joshua’s Temple Church, Montana invited audience members to post pics and video of the concert on social media, with the hashtag #PraiseCelebration2017.
Tim Ash, CEO of Ash Brokerage and the Ash Foundation, noted that he is proud to be a supporter of VOU. In introducing Marshall White, Ash referenced a book called “Half Time,” about making the journey from success to significance in life. He noted that White has already made that journey from success to significance, and more, as evidenced by the many young lives he has impacted. White serves the community by inspiring hope and excellence in his students.
In keeping with the concert theme, “Another Breakthrough”, White noted that many choir members, past and present, have gone through struggles and have overcome the challenges with the help of their faith, family, friends and mentors.
Each January, UNITY hosts a Praise Celebration in order to uplift the community and give audience members a chance to rejoice. Such events are needed, given all the distress and turmoil going on in the world.
As recent news reports bombarded social media with the story of four Chicago young adults who beat and taunted a disabled young man, White said UNITY promotes the exact opposite of what “the ones in Chicago did.”
In addition to promoting artistic and educational excellence, UNITY also promotes compassion, honesty and the importance of making positive contributions to community. No matter what the hurdles and challenges, UNITY is about transforming kids, White told the audience.
White brought to the stage four choir members, all high school students raised in single parent homes, who have been recognized for achieving excellence.
The students were Jordan Bridges, 18, a senior basketball player and homecoming king at Carroll High School, who plans to study computer engineering at Purdue University where he has been accepted or the University of Notre Dame; Ja’Shawn Turner-Parks, 17, a gridiron star and senior at Leo High School, who plans to attend Trine or the University of Saint Francis; Camille King, 16, a junior at Bishop Luers High School, who has won awards for scholastic arts and Aspen Hill, a senior and homecoming queen at Bishop Luers High School, who plans to become a pediatric neurosurgeon, after studying at Princeton University or the University of Rochester.
Moments later, the members of the Voices of Unity Youth Choir, dressed in sparkling gold and black, walked onto the stage in a single-file line. The audience gave them a standing ovation, as they took their positions on stage, between the band, led by Lance Tolbert, the horn section, led by James Farrell Vernon and a string section, led by Derek Reeves.
The celebration of song began with a monologue written by Chad Edmonds and performed by choir member Chanel Burks and “Worthy Is Your Name,” featuring soloist Marie Sims, of Summit Church. Four praise dancers, led by Albert Crowder, also joined them on the selection. Next, the choir sang a spirit-filled rendition of “Holy One,” featuring soloist Cedric Williams, of Nashville, Tenn. That was followed by a Latin-style praise selection, “I Will Praise Your Name,” featuring soloist Melisa McCann, which included lyrics in Spanish and English.
When soloist Dave Pelz, of New Covenant Worship Center took the stage, he encouraged audience participation, as the choir performed “Bless the Lord,” and the words were shown on the big screen above. With a cue from White, the song also included a guitar solo and violin solo.
Next, the choir sang “Intentional,” featuring soloist Cedric Williams, and a soul-stirring acapella version of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah,” featuring soloist and choir alumni mentor Deondra Bender.
The choir also sang “All This Time,” featuring soloist choir members Aryanna Swopshire and Aliviah Cartwright; “More and More,” featuring soloist Brian Kelly, of Indianapolis; and “Better,” featuring soloist Albert Brownlee, of Abundant Life Church.
Just before intermission, White called upon 24 new members of the choir to step forward to introduce themselves. One by one, they each stated their name, school, age and grade and declaration that they are now “very proud members of the Voices of Unity Youth Choir.”
White singled out the youngest, 6-year-old Attila Baker, who impressed the crowd by restating, from memory, UNITY’S mission statement, focus statement, vision statement, principles and motto. At White’s request, she also belted out a soulful version of “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” to the crowd’s roaring approval.
Stephanie Veit, Youth Leaders of Northeast Indiana (YLNI) President, challenged audience members to throw support behind the Voices of Unity by pledging financial support and spreading the word about the young lives being transformed by the organization.
Voices of Unity made history by embarking on a four-country, nine-city European tour last July 2016. That tour enabled the choir to sing during an entire Mass at the Vatican. Prior to that, Voices of Unity gained international acclaim in 2010 when it earned the Grand Champion title at the World Choir Games in China. Since then, the choir has “brought home the gold” at the 2012 World Choir Games in Cincinnati, OH, 2014 World Choir Games in Riga, Latvia, and performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
After a brief intermission, the choir returned to the stage and sang “Everybody Clap Your Hands,” led by soloist GorDon Martin, of Imani Baptist Temple. The spirited rendition led Martin to leave and return to the stage twice and White to instruct the band to speed up their tempo, to play the “sanctified church version” of the song. The audience stood on its feet and clapped in unison with the rousing rendition. White noted that VOU strives to provide praise songs that people of all faiths can relate to. With that, he instructed the choir to sing a stanza from “Ave Maria,” for “our Catholic brothers and sisters.”
Next, the choir sang “Nobody Like You,” featuring soloist Christa Dhladhla and choir member James McGlaston-Williams and “Great Are You Lord,” featuring soloist choir members Dayton Bennett and Cydney Bridges.
The celebration ended with a rousing rendition of “Another Breakthrough,” featuring soloist Brian Kelly and closing remarks from Niyoki Chapman, Administration/Donor Relations Manager for Unity Performing Arts Foundation.
White urged the audience to mark their calendars for UNITY’s End of the Season Concert, which will be this summer, a tribute to Elton John and the late Pop artist, Prince.