I have been a member of the Church my whole life, I’ve served the Church in several missionary callings, I’ve even served a full-time mission, and I have never seen a missionary like Gladys Knight. Last night I was able to attend a performance here in Lexington, Kentucky of the Grammy Award-winning Saints Unified Voices choir directed by the legendary Gladys Knight, and it was one of the most powerful and moving events I’ve ever attended in a Church meetinghouse. I knew I would have to write about it. Last night, I went to the performance thinking Gladys Knight is a legend, and I walked away from the performance loving her personally. It was a performance I will remember for quite some time.
We got there early so we could sit in the pews instead of in the hard chairs in the overflow, and that meant we got a close-up look at the choir and Gladys. From the first song, Gladys directed with energy and passion. The first song they performed was “Over My Head.” Interestingly, my last concert review was of King’s X, and I mentioned Doug Pinnick’s long Over My Head sermon that nowadays just wanders and rails against religion. This performance was completely different. The lyrics spoke of the trouble in the world, and the emotional need for a God: “There must be a God somewhere.” It was a little strange hearing such a powerful choir singing in our usually quiet little chapel, but as soon as I heard my first “amen” from the audience it all felt right. Can I just say it was amazingly refreshing beyond all measure to hear actual applause at a chapel?
Gladys had a three-piece band, consisting of a tasteful guitarist, an amazing and flashy keyboard player, and a subdued and cheerful bassist. They were on. I’m sure the ears of every musician in the audience perked up as soon as the keyboardist played his first gospel flourish.
The choir moved on to sing a few very powerful gospel songs, and finally, Gladys turned around, and with her signature humility announced, “Well, I guess I’d better introduce myself.” She completely won over every person in that chapel with her loving, soulful personality, and she spoke a language that she brought with her into Mormonism: the language of every black gospel choir in the South. The audience was enthralled and entranced as she moved to a gospel rendition of “I Am a Child of God.”
Then there was a short spoken-word section, read by a British member of the choir. She spoke of the slaves that were brought to the United States from Africa, and the rich gospel tradition that they cultivated. It was a testament to their strength and hope in Christ. However, the choir immediately moved from African hymns to a hymn from a completely different part of the world.
A Hawaiian gentleman took a mic and began singing a hymn in his language, and slowly, each Polynesian member of the choir rose, singing along with him. A Polynesian man sitting near me in the audience lifted a fist of triumph in the air. It was awesome. Soon the entire choir was singing along with them for several moving songs, featuring individual members of the choir who just blew me away with their vocal skills. It was truly a night of great talent.
Finally, after all these songs, Gladys took the microphone to bear her testimony. This was the part of the performance I, and everyone else, was waiting for. There was an elephant in the room, of course, and Gladys immediately acknowledged it. I’m not sure how these performances go in the West, but this is Kentucky. We’re not necessarily part of the Deep South, but we still bear the scars of slavery and racism to this very day. The countryside here is still lined with the short, stacked, gray limestone walls built on the backs of slaves 150 years ago. The audience last night was filled with hundreds of African-American members of the community, most of whom had never been to a Mormon church before. Certainly there was a feeling of curiosity mixed with wonder and nervousness on both sides of this racial divide. Many wondered why Gladys Knight, a woman who was once at the forefront of the empowering Motown musical movement, would join the Mormon Church. For many members of the African-American community here in Kentucky, the only thing they know about Mormons is our racial history. Just three nights ago, a white, Utah-born missionary told me first-hand that as he and his companion were walking through a predominantly black neighborhood at night, a man told them, “Boys, don’t you know this is a black neighborhood? You’d better get out of here.” And when I grew up in a rural Western Kentucky town in the 1990s, I still remember hearing racist views from people in the LDS Church. So anyone who thinks that this country has moved beyond race needs to know where I’m coming from. There are places in this country where a great deal of healing needs to occur in everyone’s hearts.
Gladys started her testimony off by speaking directly to the African-Americans in the crowd. “Now is the part where I tell you why I’m here. I know you’re wondering,” she said. Everyone laughed and a few people even clapped.
Gladys proceeded to bear a sublime, moving testimony of her children bringing her into the Church. She told us that she, like many members of the African-American community, was concerned at what she called the Church’s “image problems with people of color” in the past. Gladys handled such a sensitive and sometimes troubling subject with pure, loving attitude of forgiveness. No matter how you view the history of race in the Church, Gladys delightfully spoke as if she had long ago accepted our apology. She playfully announced, “Ain’t nobody perfect!” She also told us that she was a praying woman, and, though she didn’t want to undermine anyone else’s faith, when she got on her knees and prayed about this Church, God told her this is where He wanted her to be. After seeing her performance, I must agree that she’s absolutely right. It was like a Baptist sermon for the last 15 minutes of the performance, and she described her experience trying to bring her cultural upbringing to the Church, even taking funny little jabs at scrapbooking and macaroni salad. Any racial tension that may have existed in the room slowly melted away as she spoke to all of us. It was certainly a beautiful sight to behold. She told us to look around. It was a chapel filled with black, white, Hispanic, and Polynesian people who had all come to listen together to the choir in an LDS church. She told us that God was a master painter, He needs everyone to be who they are inside and outside, and He’s got colors in His palette that we’ve never even seen before. The room was brimming with love, acceptance, and unity, and that’s exactly what the Saints Unified Voices choir is for.
I appreciated this last point more than anything. The Church has a reputation for homogenizing everything it touches, from the ubiquitous green hymnbook in every chapel to the clean-shaven, short-haired BYU honor code and everything in-between. People like me who grew up in this Church always felt a bit different because we didn’t fit the mold. At my high school I was the Mormon Kid, so I felt a little disconnected there. At Church, I was a rocker with a rebellious streak. I wanted to grow my hair long and be in a rock band. I wanted to listen to heavy metal. I wanted to be myself but above all, I wanted to strengthen my testimony of Jesus Christ. I didn’t want to abandon who I was to do it though. I felt like I was at the intersection of two strange worlds and didn’t fit in to either one fully.
Gladys Knight shattered the idea that we all have to be the same in one, graceful yet powerful performance. She told us we can be different. The only way we can grow and learn from each other is by being ourselves and embracing our differences. I can’t say enough how that touched me, and I’m sure it has the same effect on anyone who felt like me growing up in the Church. When Gladys was done speaking, the choir ended on a Hawaiian farewell song, and they all slowly shuffled out of the chapel (Gladys stopped only to hold and kiss a baby on her way out).
Let me say again that this was one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve had at a Church before. I had never seen anything like it in my life, and that’s why I had to write a review for Linescratchers. Though we here at Linescratchers feature “LDS musicians that don’t play LDS music,” Gladys is more than just an LDS musician. She’s paid her dues. She spent her time in the ’60s and ’70s selling records, winning awards, and breaking down racial barriers, and she didn’t stop when she joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The “LDS music” scene can certainly learn a thing or two (or three) from Gladys Knight and the Saints Unified Voices choir, and if it did, maybe it wouldn’t be in the sorry state it’s in. When was the last time a Pearl Award winner also won a Grammy?
If anyone here has a chance to see Gladys Knight and the Saints Unified Voices choir, I urge you to see it. If you can see it somewhere in the South, even better.
To find out more about the Saints Unified Voices choir, visit their official website HERE.