As the sun set on the Westhampton United Methodist Church last month, five men sat quietly in a semicircle in a private room, waiting patiently.
They couldn’t have known what was brewing just outside the door leading into the sanctuary, and they didn’t bother wagering any guesses. They’d learned better over the years.
So, instead, they followed a set of explicit instructions given to them: Prepare 50 minutes of songs to sing over the course of two sets, and under no circumstances were they to leave the room until they were fetched.
“Our wives decided we should have a celebration,” explained Howard Bell. “We were okay with it, because that’s what they wanted. I don’t want to say it’s embarrassing …”
“It’s humbling,” Tom Terry interjected. “Because, whatever we do, whenever we do it, we don’t do it for us. We do it for Jesus Christ. That’s what it’s all about.”
Larry Holeman, Errol Carter, Stanley Hartman and Mr. Bell nodded silently, undoubtedly reflecting on what brought them, the Glorification Singers, together that night: 25 years of Christian music and a quarter century of friendship, more than 600 cross-denomination concerts played, six albums, 60,000 miles traveled, and the lives they say they’ve changed along the way—including their own—at a time when religion’s impact on American life is said to be waning.
Their story begins in 1990, though a few of the musicians had traveled and performed together years prior. They found their sound when Mr. Terry, a soft rock drummer, joined the group with their original sound engineer, a jet mechanic named Paul Gustafson, who died three years ago, and his assistant, Mr. Holeman, who was a computer programmer. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the vocalists and crew banded together, found common ground and subsequent success—most notably, three nominations for vocal group of the year by the Christian Country Music Association.
“At first, it was a praise band that played in churches. And then it opened up,” Mr. Bell said of the group. “We said, ‘We should really touch everybody, even beyond our music.’”
“We all have personal stories to tell about how our lives are different when we came to know the Lord for the first time and how that affected us,” Mr. Terry said.
“I’ll tell you how it started,” Mr. Carter said in a gravelly voice. “It was back years ago.”
The musician was in his 20s, driving back to the East End from upstate New York, riding in a cramped van of gospel singers. While stopping for gas, Mr. Carter opened up the sliding door and began playing guitar, singing a song, when an older man stepped up to listen. He noticed one of his bandmates approach the stranger with a cassette, and they exchanged a few words.
“When we jumped back in the van and took off, I asked, ‘What were you talking to that guy about?’ And he said, ‘It was really something else. He was at the gas station, and he was going to kill himself.’ For me, a light went on. I said, ‘Why can’t we do this in Westhampton Beach, in the summertime?’
“So we got together, had an old flatbed pickup truck, put hay bales on it and, back in the ’80s, everybody was on drugs, drinking, and they’d all come around and listen to us sing,” he continued. “And they’d throw bottles at us, everything. The thing is, we did that for six summers in a row. And the churches started hearing what was going on, and they started calling us.”
What started on the back of that truck grew into the Glorification Singers, a part-time gig that has brought them from Maine to Tennessee in their RV. They have played Nassau Coliseum, Jones Beach, Patchogue Theater, as well as various outdoor events, weddings and funerals. They even sang to cows one time in Cutchogue, Mr. Holeman recalled with a laugh—a “moo-ving experience,” he said, quoting a local newspaper’s coverage.
They have played music overseas in Latvia and Estonia, visiting prisons, correctional centers and schools, they recalled. But the one performance Mr. Terry will always remember was a small gig in Pennsylvania. It was not a particularly stellar concert, he half-heartedly admitted, but when they wrapped their set, he noticed two girls sitting alone in a car in the parking lot. And he felt himself drawn to them.
“I went over and knocked on the window and I said, ‘I don’t know why, but I feel the Lord saying to me, I have to give you our CDs. I just need to say to you that I love you, and God loves you, and I hope you enjoy the CDs,’” he recalled. “That was it.”
Several years later, they returned to the same venue for another show. In between sets, a couple approached the group and asked, “Which one of you in Tom Terry?”
“We all backed away,” Mr. Bell recalled with a smirk, the rest of the group laughing.
Mr. Terry stepped up, only to hear a story about the couple’s daughter, who turned out to be one of the two girls in the car that fateful day, when the musician gave them the CDs.
She had been in a state of depression, on the verge of suicide, and after she listened to the music, she devoted herself to God, they explained. Mr. Terry wiped his eyes as he told the story, a lump in his throat.
“I’m sorry,” he said, choking up. “This just showed me—I think it showed all of us—that if we just listen to God in even the most simplistic thing, He will take care of changing lives. It is not our job to change a life. It’s our job to just reflect Jesus Christ and allow Him to do what He wants to do.”
While the United States remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found the percentage of adults age 18 and older who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in seven years—from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent last year. And over the same period, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” has jumped more than six percentage points—from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent.
In other words, it is not an easy time to be a Christian music group in the Northeast, Mr. Bell said.
“We can tell these stories, but when it happens to you, all of a sudden it’s a real thing. You think back and it’s not a coincidence,” Mr. Bell said. “So many people have turned away from God. The United States has turned away. We’re not cramming this down somebody’s throat, because it’s not for us to do that. We’re just the messenger. That’s what God’s done. Here’s some songs you can hear, and make your own choice.”
With one minute until show time at the Westhampton United Methodist Church, anxious jitters bounced around the room.
“When don’t we get nervous?” Mr. Bell laughed. “It’s the funniest thing. We’ll be backstage, or a room like this, but all of a sudden, you walk out. All of a sudden, it puts you in the zone. It’s hard to explain.”
“But before we go out, we will always take time in a circle of prayer,” Mr. Terry said. “We’ll all pray. No matter how nervous or how excited you are, that time puts everything in perspective. It’s not about us, it’s about the Lord. So that’s one way of Him calming us.”
“Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen,” Mr. Carter said.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got your back,” Mr. Hartman said. “We plan on going for another 25 years.”
And with that, they excused themselves to pray before making their grand entrance to an unexpected, thunderous round of applause.
“Oh, wow,” Mr. Bell breathed out, taking in the rows of packed pews—and the faces of their beloved friends, neighbors and fans from over the last 25 years who came from near and far to hear them sing, and celebrate their legacy.
For the rest of the night, the Glorification Singers were not just a hometown gospel group.
They were rock stars.
For more information about the Glorification Singers, visit glorificationsingers.com.