Show Me the Way of the Hebrews: The Making of an African American Rabbi

Posted originally on Religion Dispatches on JUNE 23, 2010.

The services I attended at Philadelphia’s Congregation Temple Bethel were loud and joyous, but I felt totally out of place. That was a familiar feeling, of course. My two Jewish parents raised me without any religious education. (My father, a butcher, takes an almost perverse delight in flouting his non-belief with gestures like giving me lard as a Christmas present.) But I was more at ease this morning, because it was not expected that I understand the rituals because I look like a Jew. I was one of the only white people in shul that morning, and it was nice to look as out of place as I usually feel.

Bethel is an African American synagogue founded in the 1950s by a woman known as “Mother” Louise Elizabeth Dailey. Today it has an estimated membership of 500 families.

Their mode of worship looked more Pentecostal to me than Jewish. A praise band played throughout the five-hour service, which was punctuated by frenzied moments in which worshippers would run laps around the pews while some fell into ecstatic fits of weeping. They were dedicating a new Torah scroll, and some readers sounded almost like mullahs chanting the Koran, while others sang with an extravagant Ashkenazi style that I had only seen used by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

I was at Bethel on an assignment for The Washington Post, a cover story for the magazine about a new African American synagogue in DC started in 2008 by Mother Dailey’s grandson, Eli Aronoff. (Aronoff claims no Ashkenazi ancestry despite his surname—his father was from rural South Carolina.) Neither my story nor the new congregation succeeded—the Post axed the story during a shakeup of the magazine’s editorial staff in 2009, and Aronoff’s congregation recently decided to disband after two struggling years. But the experience allowed me to ask what it means to belong to a tradition that I had always been taught was my birthright. Does heritage alone make a Jew a Jew? Religious law? And why are these more important tokens of membership in the community that someone’s personal faith?

“Doing away with this New Testament nonsense…”

Louise Elizabeth Dailey was the daughter of a Baptist minister in Annapolis, Maryland, who observed some odd customs. He salted chicken after it was slaughtered, for example, and covered mirrors during a period of mourning. When she saw these same customs observed by a Jewish family for whom she worked as a maid after moving to Philadelphia around 1940, she decided this was more than coincidence. “Coincidence,” she was fond of saying, “is just God’s way of being anonymous.”

She began keeping kosher. She adopted a Saturday Sabbath, which ironically got her fired by her Jewish employers when she refused to wash dishes on the holy day. While raising six children, she started hosting a prayer group in her living room. It quickly grew, its ranks swelling with the large numbers of African Americans then pouring into Philadelphia from the South. In 1951, the group formally declared itself the Bethel Holy Commandment Church.

As the name makes obvious, they were not yet a synagogue. Dailey’s daughter, Debra Bowen, became leader of Bethel after her mother’s death in 2001, and she is the official keeper of her legend. Bowen confessed in a rare moment of candor during an interview with a University of Pennsylvania student named Dan Ross, “One thing that was difficult for [Mother] to relinquish in a really quick way was that we worshipped Jesus Christ.” (Dan Ross’s impressive senior thesis is the only in-depth history of the congregation.)

A group of African Americans who thought of themselves as the children of Israel yet who worshipped Jesus Christ—this is not as odd as it may at first sound. Around the turn of the 20th century, some of the children their forefathers’ white masters. The Hebrew bible’s exodus narrative had long made it central to black theology, making Judaism a logical model for crafting a new faith for free people. But Jesus, too, was important in black faith, and most of the Jewish-inspired denominations that sprang up did not renounce him. Instead, they claimed white Jews were imposters to the faith who had misunderstood Christ’s significance. Broadly speaking, these black “messianic” groups held beliefs that resemble elements of Seventh Day Adventism and Jews for Jesus colored by Black Nationalism and the worship practices of the African American church.

In the mid 1950s, Dailey’s reputation as a preacher came to the attention of the “chief apostle” of one of these denominations, the House of God, Inc. The House of God, founded in Washington, DC in 1918 and later headquartered in Kentucky, describes itself as a “Hebrew Pentecostal” denomination. Bishop S. P Rawlings asked Dailey to affiliate with his church and later recruited her for the third-highest position in its national leadership.

Dailey ensured that Bethel would keep its autonomy, but she signed on with the House of God because it gave her a national platform to share her message. Around the time her first grandchild, Eli Aronoff, was born in 1960, Dailey spent several weeks on preaching tours each year. Exactly what she preached in those years is unclear, but it clearly increasingly challenged Christianity. According to one family legend, a group of ministers in South Carolina put a snake in a house where she was staying as a form of lynching.

Increasingly, her beliefs became more and more grounded in the Jewish daily prayer, the Shema: “Hear, o Israel, … the Lord is one.” By the time Aronoff reached bar mitzvah age, Dailey decided the time had come to renounce Jesus. “There was a moment she said, ‘OK, we’re doing away with this New Testament nonsense—we’re not doing that no more,’” he remembers. Bethel voted to break from the House of God, though about a third of the congregation left Bethel, choosing Jesus over Mother. This included her son George, who remains a House of God bishop to this day.

Once Mother Dailey made this leap, she was neither gentle nor quiet. “This ain’t no milk and no eggs,” she warned during a sermon broadcast on the radio. “This is meat! You can’t digest this, honey, you gonna choke to death!” She let loose with a staccato lyricism:

We’ve been taught lies all our lives.
We were taught that we had two gods—we were taught that we had three gods:
God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.
Hallelujah! HALLELUJAH!
But I heard Satan say:
I’m gonna deceive the people [because] you threw me out of heaven.
I’m gonna exalt my dome above the stars.
And I’m gonna be as the Most High.
I’m gonna make men worship ME
and make them think they’re worshipping YOU!
I know you said besides you there is no other, but I’m gonna give you another god.
I’m gonna tell men they can’t be saved unless you go through this other god!

Dailey used to believe in that “other god,” she told her audience, but the Almighty revealed the truth to her through scripture. “You said in Your word, Israel only gonna be saved … and if you’re not in Israel, you’re not gonna be saved. And there ain’t no Hebrews worshipping Jesus!”

“We know your people were Hebrews”

Just because the Bethelites believed they were Jews did not mean they knew how to practice Jewish rituals—and it certainly did not mean that they were accepted as by those whose ancestors had brought the faith to America from Europe. Neither Dailey nor members of her congregation went before a rabinnical court to convert according to Jewish law. They were not converts, they believed — they asserted that their African ancestors had been Jews before slavery imposed a false religion upon them.

Dailey held up her father’s Judaic customs as evidence of this history, and also pointed to scriptural prophecy: “If you do not observe to fulfill all the words of this Torah,” it is written in Deuteronomy 28, then the “Lord will bring you back to Egypt in ships…. And there, you will seek to be sold to your enemies for slaves and handmaids … [and] serve other deities unknown to you or your forefathers.” The ships were the clincher—why would Jews be carried back to slavery in ships if they were living in the desert? This could only refer to the ships that carried Africans to the New World.

This didn’t wash with the administrations of Jewish schools, which denied Bethelite children admission. Nor was it accepted by dealers of Torahs and other ritual objects, who refused to sell to Bethel. They were even blackballed from buying prayer books.

One person who shared Dailey’s interpretation of history was Morris Shoulson, an Orthodox rabbi who was one of Philadelphia’s best-respected mohels. And it is was through him that Mother Dailey’s lifelong prayer, “God, show me the way of the Hebrews!” was most directly answered.

Performing a circumcision ceremony for a Bethelite family in 1976, Shoulson noticed Eli Aronoff — then an almost painfully skinny teenager — intently watching his every move. He invited Aronoff to come study with him, asking one thing in return. “You must promise me that you will not take what I teach you to [any established] synagogue,” he said. “Take this back to your people so they will know who they are.”

Aronoff remembers Shoulson telling him, “We know your people were Hebrews.” Training the boy was also part of a larger agenda, Aronoff explains. “He wanted to have a conduit, somebody who could go to the [African American] community … [to] educate them about their history and where they come from.”

Shoulson, who died in 1990, was a short, balding man who always had the distracted air of someone trapped in serious concentration. He held classes for students from many different congregations in the row house he converted into a shul by knocking out the walls on the ground floor to create a sanctuary. Aronoff attended classes alongside students from other synagogues around the city, where the rabbi lead informal discussion sessions based each week on a different subject—a ritual’s details, the laws of keeping kosher, the celebration of the High Holy Days.

Shoulson also had Aronoff attend classes at a local Jewish college, and had Aronoff submit to a conversion ceremony in order to be allowed to enroll. “I know who you are,” he told Aronoff, “but the powers that be [don’t].” Aronoff says that it felt strange converting to something he already believed himself to be, but he understood that he was jumping through a hoop in order to achieve a larger goal of getting a Jewish education. “Ultimately, it opened a number of doors for me,” he says.

After completing his studies and receiving his ordination from Shoulson, Aronoff honored his commitment to his teacher by teaching in his grandmother’s congregation for more than 20 years, while earning his living as an accountant. Bethel member Dave McClam, whose mother was among the congregation’s founders, says that Aronoff was “on the cutting edge” of Judaizing their practices as they transformed into a synagogue. “He’s one of the first ones to start with questions about our faith and the Jewish way,” McClam said. “He would go sit in the caucasian setting, and the information he brought back … [provided] clarification” on how to say the prayers, order worship services, and fulfill ritual requirements.

When a group in Washington asked him to leave Bethel and help them build a synagogue, he had no desire to leave. But then he remembered the deal he had made for his training. “I’m willing to help you because I had promised Rabbi Shoulson,” Aronoff told the organizer of the Washington group, Shelliyah Iyomahan. “I will do this even if it comes at some personal sacrifice … if this means that this helps me to fulfill my obligation.”

“This school is for Jewish kids — maybe you can’t read!”

Shelliyah Iyomahan is a solidly built woman who laughs in a way that makes clear she doesn’t tolerate foolishness. She was raised in Brooklyn in a household of Trinidadian Jews, and her husband, Bright, is from a Nigerian community that claims descent from the ancient Israelites.

She set her mind on starting a new congregation after an incident that occurred one morning when she was volunteering in the office of a DC synagogue. There was another African American there, a man also born Jewish, who was answering phones. Someone stuck their head in the office to ask them to come pray—they were short of the ten Jews required to form the minyan. When they joined the group, the leader assumed the black man was a convert, and asked if he had fulfilled all of the process’s legal requirements.

After that incident, she says, “my eyes [were] opened.” Regardless of their devotion to the faith, Jews like her would always be greeted skeptically in DC’s white congregations because of their black skin. Of course, she had also experienced this bias directly—the reception she received when she visited Jewish schools for her children was so hostile that she vowed “never [to] put my children in any Jewish day school in this area, even if it were free.” She remembers, “The looks on their faces [said], ‘You want to enroll your children here?! This school is for Jewish kids—maybe you can’t read!”

Iyomahan and a handful of other black Jews—along with a white woman who was looking for a multicultural setting to raise teach the faith to her Guatemalan-born son—formed a congregation they called Temple Beth Emet, and recruited Aronoff to lead them. They improvised a sanctuary in a conference room of an administrative building of DC’s Sixth and I Synagogue. Sabrina Sojourner, DC’s former shadow representative to the US Congress, volunteered to be the new congregation’s cantor. She had “returned” to Judaism at a major reform synagogue where she felt very much at home, but had felt called to a greater leadership role. In the months before Aronoff moved to the Washington area, Sojourner would start services every Saturday morning at 10:00, often without enough worshipers to form a minyan.

This, sadly, is a large part of the reason Beth Emet proved unsustainable—they never achieved critical mass, and they were strapped for resources because they were launching a small congregation during the recession. But their faith and need for a community lead them to try for two years before giving up.

What a Jew looks like

While working on my story for The Washington Post, I attended services almost every weekend for several months, more time than I have ever spent in synagogue. And I felt more at home in these services than I have ever felt at any other. Lasting two hours or more, so much time was set aside for discussion of scripture and tradition that it felt more like a study group than worship service to me. I didn’t feel expected to know the rituals or the prayers—a good number of Beth Emet’s members were in the middle of the conversion process, and were also learning.

It spoke to my love of history, and my delight in arguing over the meaning of words. But it did not awaken any religious feeling, which part of me hoped it would. The rituals still did not resonate, and the only emotional response prayer elicited was jealousy of those who find such activities so meaningful.

As I was coming to realize this was not my path to Jewish faith, I was reminded that my appearance would always make my Jewishness more accepted than the members of Beth Emet who had worked so hard to build a community to worship. When I arrived early one Shabbat morning, Sojourner was arguing with a young man dressed in a dark suit. He was with a group of orthodox professionals meeting downstairs, and he had tried to abduct Beth Emet’s Torah to use in their services. The minute I walked into the room, he stopped engaging Sojourner assuming I was in charge — because I looked like he expected a Jew to look.

In Lomax’s Place

Money and Music in the Field

The Oxford American, November 2008

Even though Della Daniels had always dreamed of a singing career, she didn’t want to sing for the producer from New York. Michael Reilly had come down to Mississippi to record her nephew’s rap group, the Money Hungry Youngstas. Della first saw the skinny white producer when he pulled up to her sister’s double-wide trailer in October of 2004, and he looked like he was hardly out of college. But Michael had brought real equipment, and she thought maybe this could lead somewhere. Della’s nephew, Kevin, had never really believed that a producer would come from New York to a Mississippi town as small as Como, and his group was not ready to record. One of them was still at school, in the middle of football practice.

With help from her sister, Angela Taylor, Della stalled for time. They told Michael about how their grandfather had recorded for the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax in 1959. They got their cousin, Ester Mae Wilbour, to bring over photographs of their grandfather and the CD with his songs on it. Della and Ester, who were ten at the time of Lomax’s visit, remembered him playing guitar atop his red mare, who would keep time with her hooves. As they talked, Della realized that Michael was so fascinated with Lomax’s work that they were at risk of stealing the show. “It was as if he had read the man’s biography and seen himself in it,” she thought. “It’s like he put himself in Lomax’s place.”

When he asked the ladies to sing, Della and Angela looked each other right in the eye and thought, “We can’t do this to Kevin.” But Kevin still had not rounded up his group, so what could they do? The three large women reluctantly stood up, settled on a song they used to sing on Mother’s Day at Mt. Mariah Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, and shook the trailer’s walls with their voices. When they finished, the soft-spoken Michael quietly said, “Awesome,” but they could see the depth of his excitement in his reddening face. Ester could tell their singing had the effect Angela and Della feared. “When you come back next time, you’ll be coming back at us,” she told Michael.

Though the hip-hop he had come for did not pan out, Michael was in a “blissful state” driving out of Como. The trip had started as a half-baked plan to make a movie with two friends, a slapstick buddy film improbably combined with a journey through Lomax’s old stomping grounds. The twenty-seven-year-old Michael was not much of a “producer” at the time—he was working a meaningless job in the office of a New York construction contractor called ZZZ Carpentry and living in a room too small to stand up in. But he had discovered the Lomax Archive at Manhattan’s Hunter College, reconnecting with music that had hooked him ever since he had heard one of Lomax’s Mississippi recordings in an African American music class he took in college. Needing to shake up his life, Reilly came up with the idea of making a film with the help of two friends.

The Archive suggested he visit Como because Della Daniels had just sent them a CD of the Money Hungry Youngstas in the hopes that her grandfather’s connection to Lomax might be the ticket to a music career. The film never got made, but Michael quit his job at ZZZ Carpentry almost a year later and returned to Como in June of 2005 with a high-end field recording setup he had put on a credit card. He set up a recording session at the Mt. Mariah church with the three women he met on his first visit, whom he had come to call the Como Mamas. He shopped a CD of their work after he returned to New York, ultimately hooking up with Brooklyn-based retro-soul label Daptone Records. The label sent Michael back to Mt. Mariah in 2006 to record more tracks with the Como Mamas and five other local acts whom Della Daniels helped recruit. In August, Daptone released Como Now, a collection of searingly powerful a cappella gospel.

It is ironic, yes, that the album is called Como Now, when Michael passed up recording a hip-hop group to make a gospel CD that Alan Lomax could have made. Lomax believed the folksong collector was fighting against the music industry’s “corrupting” influence by preserving the talent of people who could not appreciate their own worth. But Lomax’s notion of “folk music” does not make sense in Como—“I wasn’t really in touch with that word, folk music,” Angela Taylor says.

In Como, records and money go hand in hand. And it is only because the Pratcher family believed their music had value—cash value—that this “folky” recording ever got made.

***

Michael Reilly’s road to Como really began when Ida Mae Carter got a check from the Alan Lomax Archive. Ida Mae is the Como Mamas’ aunt, and she was one of many relatives who recorded for Lomax at the same time as their grandfather, Miles Pratcher. (Some of the Pratcher family’s recordings can befound on Atlantic’s Sounds of the South and volume three of Rounder’s Southern Journeys.) Ida Mae told Della, “I got a check! Three hundred dollars! He’s still sending us money!” Della reported this to her cousin, who started to wonder why she was not getting royalties on recordings she remembers her mother making for Lomax. The cousin called the Archive, where an employee named Bert Lyons said he would be interested in connecting with the younger generations of Pratchers.

Della pounced on the opportunity. “Kev’ an’ ’em got this record, girl!” she exclaimed. Hoping to give Kevin the shot at a musical career she had wanted at his age, Della had already been checking out library books on the music business and had written to record companies without success. From what she learned, you could not promote a record without an established producer. “We down here trying to promote this record,” she told her cousin, “[Bert] might have somebody who may be interested in some rap.” Her timing had been perfect. She called Bert right around the time Michael asked him to recommend some musical stops for his road-trip film.

The Pratcher family has a complicated relationship to the Lomax royalties. Sizeable checks like the one Ida Mae Carter received were rare—usually they were for four or five dollars, and sometimes for as little as seventy-two cents. They heard about Lomax’s ties to the Library of Congress and the archive that bears his name in New York. “I don’t know what his studio looked like in New York, but Alan Lomax must really have done good,” Della says. The small, erratic payments that showed up in their mailbox made her wonder: “Had Alan Lomax really been fair to the people that he recorded?”

Her grandfather and other relatives had mostly been illiterate, and Lomax came through at a time when segregation made it all but inevitable that a white man would take advantage of black folks. “I felt like Alan Lomax knew there was no way for them to know…whether he was being fair or not,” Della explains, saying she had overheard her aunts’ suspicions that they had been cheated. Perhaps the occasional payments were just token amounts to assuage his guilt? “I believe that Alan Lomax had a conscience,” she says. “I believe that there was a part of him that knew that he didn’t really need to come down to Mississippi and just take advantage of poor helpless black people that didn’t have anything.”

Charges of racism have plagued Lomax, in part because his work is sometimes conflated with that of his father, John Lomax. The senior Lomax was a paternalistic segregationist who once infamously described the Louisiana inmate musician Leadbelly as “a nigger to the core of his being” in a letter to the New York press. Alan Lomax, on the other hand, was a liberal, but was limited on racial matters by what folklorist Patrick Mullen called an “arrogant lack of self-awareness.” Alan came under heavy criticism for copyrighting Leadbelly’s songs and those of other musicians he recorded under his own name. But, according to fellow blues scholar Jeff Todd Titon, Lomax justified this because he needed to earn a living in order to keep collecting songs. “I don’t think he could see that it was problematic,” Titon remarked.

Lomax Archive associate director Don Fleming is weary of battling allegations that Lomax exploited the people he recorded. He says that members of the Archive staff have at times dedicated more than thirty hours per week tracking down musicians’ heirs. Fleming would not disclose the exact terms of Lomax’s agreement with the Pratchers, but he said they were “on par with standard industry contracts of the same time” in which Lomax would have been compensated as the record’s producer. Industry practice gives musicians and producers only a small share of profits, with the lion’s share remaining with the company. According to Bruce Nemerov, former audio archivist at Middle Tennessee State University’s Center for Popular Music, an artist might receive a royalty in the neighborhood of six to eight percent, while some producers would get a fee equal to roughly half that amount in the late ’50s. Though Lomax had put his name on the copyrights of songs he collected, the Pratchers were assigned the copyright for the song on the collection released by Atlantic.

The suspicions Della Daniels and other Pratcher family members harbor likely arise from expectations about records that clash with Lomax’s. “I heard maybe my aunts and things say they didn’t really feel like they got like what they should have gotten because they felt records made a lot of money,” Della says. For Lomax, however, recordings were first and foremost tools to preserve treasured songs, not a major source of revenue. Sales of Lomax’s Como recordings were modest when they were first released by Atlantic records in the early 1960s, as they are with the Rounder reissues. The Lomax Archive says the Rounder reissue of Southern Journeys has sold under ten thousand copies in ten years, and only eighty in the last six months. When such small sales are divided up between all the artists’ heirs, royalty checks sometimes go out for well under one dollar.

Michael is about as mild-mannered as Alan Lomax was blustery, and the Como Mamas gained confidence in him as their collaboration proceeded. “We trusted Mike,” says Angela Taylor, “Mike is like part of our family now.” But Della also felt comfortable because she had prepared herself. “Even though I didn’t have anything but maybe a twelfth-grade education…. I had educated myself again as to what was going on today, and I felt like we weren’t going to just jump up and sign something without knowing or believing.” And they did in fact turn down the first contract Michael brought them, from Rounder Records, which appeared to benefit the record company at their expense. (Michael says he thought it looked like “bullshit,” but wanted to give the Como Mamas a chance to make up their own minds.) Daptone offered the artists a $250 advance and a fifty-fifty split of any profits, which Daptone co-founder Gabriel Roth presented to the artists in a meeting at Mt. Mariah.

Michael returned to Mt. Mariah in September 2008 to deliver copies of the CD to the musicians, who were going to be performing a concert in Memphis the next day. They sat in small clumps around the church’s one room. Reilly wanted the meeting to be informal, but Della was so excited she set up the church microphone so that it would feel like more of an event. “Y’all just don’t know how long we’ve been trying to sing—yes, we thank you, thank you, thank you!” she told Michael. “I had given up on anybody ever being willing to put any money behind it, anything I was doing.”

Tonight, she felt like the chance she took with Michael was finally leading to a career in music. Fresh out of high school, Della wrote a song she still believes should have been a country hit. Not that she intended it to be a country song (“I’m black,” she laughs. “I won’t sing country and western”). But the only way she could find into the music business was through a Nashville company advertising in the back of the pulp magazine, True Stories. Saving up eighty-nine dollars from her job at a hospital drawing blood, she mailed a set of lyrics to Music City and got back two 45s of her words set to a country arrangement. “I believe to this day I wrote a hit,” she says, “but there was no way for me to do anything with it.” She ached to be on the radio. “I used to say to myself, ‘I wish I could climb up a light pole and figure out how to play it and make it go into all these homes.’”

The lyrics came out of twin tragedies: her mother had died, and a man she thought loved her suddenly married someone else. “The name of the song was called ‘Mighty Jesus’ because no matter how hard I tried to get away from church, it was in me,” Della explains. She felt like “church music wouldn’t make me any money,” and she would have pursued a career singing in nightclubs if her strict mother had not stood in her way. But after she realized there was no way to get her songs on the radio even if she paid to have them recorded, Mt. Mariah and the other churches in her hometown became the only place to keep her dreams alive. “I just kept a-singing, kept a-singing, kept a-singing,” she remembers. “I used to want to think when I go ’round to churches and things to sing, who knows who’s visiting that church that day.” There was always a chance someone sitting in the back had ties to the music industry.

And now, some fifty years later, her improbable fantasy came true: a producer was in her church delivering a CD with her name on the back. Some of the musicians sitting in Mt. Mariah’s pews had been less ready than Della to take the chance. Della, whom Michael asked to find more singers for the 2006 session, originally wanted to charge other musicians twenty-five dollars to record as a way to raise money for Mt. Mariah. But the Pratchers were not the only family that felt they had been burned by music collectors. Only one group was willing to pay the fee. Even once she waived the twenty-five dollars, she had to coax singers like Brother Raymond Walker and his wife to join Como Now. Others before Michael had come to Como to record Brother Walker, who had crossed paths with Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers when he sang on the gospel circuit in the ’50s, and nothing had come of it. But Della’s pleading convinced him to record a deeply moving call-and-response spiritual with his wife, Sister Joella Walker, which they wrote together in their youth while working the cotton fields. Now Daptone is planning to release another CD devoted to the Walker Family, along with one dedicated entirely to the Como Mamas.

The Walkers and the other musicians gradually left Mt. Mariah with copies of their CDs, until only the Como Mamas and a couple others remained. Robert Smith, a steward at Mt. Mariah who had been too skeptical of Reilly to sing for the record, was among those who lingered. Della offered him the microphone and coaxed him to sing. “I tried to get him to sing that night” they recorded, she told Michael. “Come on Robert, just sing him a verse of a song.” Maybe seeing the CD changed his mind—the stooped man carefully made his way to the front of the church where Della sat with Angela Taylor and another singer, Mary Moore. Robert quickly tested the microphone before turning loose a powerful vibrato. “Looooord, I hope I meet you!” he called. The three women answered in unison, their voices like bugles sounding a battle call for Jesus.

“When we sell all we can and can’t sell no more, they gonna come get you,” Della teased Robert. “Then you gonna make some money! It’ll start all over again.”

Copyright © 2020 J. Lester Feder
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