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    This originally appeared in the 2019 Best of Louisville issue of Louisville Magazine. 

     

    Under His wings I am safely abiding
     

    When the organ melody flared, the boy in the third row leaned forward on the pew. The church was a “silk stocking” kind of place, no booming bass or brash drums, but what the organist did to that instrument was divine. The boy was only four, but already he was hooked. Old deacons shooed him off the church pianos between services while he waited on his father, himself a deacon, to finish his duties. His mother was in the choir and on the missionary board. The boy was always in the church. When he was eight, on the first Sunday in March, 1968, he dressed in white jeans and a white shirt. The water in the baptismal pool was frigid. It was like the old spiritual said: I’ve been to the water, and the water was cold. He chills my body, but not my soul. He broke the surface. Hallelujah.


    Though the night deepens
    and tempests are wild

     

    By the time he got to Jerry’s Restaurant on Eastern Parkway, Kevin James was nervous. It was Christmastime, 1986, and God had given him that scariest of gifts: the opportunity for change. He wasn’t sure where the path led from there, exactly, though the path behind him now seemed straight and clear. There was his piano teacher, the Rev. Alfred Johnson, who could tell if James missed a fingering even if his back was turned. There was trumpet in band from middle school on. There was his first piano, at home in Gary, Indiana, a Kimball his parents bought for $950. And then there was his sophomore year, when Johnson hired him to play in his church, performing and rehearsing with his choirs for $25 a week — a lofty sum for a 15-year-old in 1975. For seven years he was the minister of music at Gilt Edge Baptist in Jeffersonville, Indiana. He could feel the Lord guiding him forward. And so he opened the door. Inside, waiting, was the Rev. Kevin Cosby of west Louisville’s St. Stephen Church.


    Still I can trust Him,
    I know He will keep me;

     

    “Stick with me, we’ll retire together.” That’s what James remembers Cosby telling him those 33 years ago, back when St. Stephen was a one-service, one-choir outfit. It has grown to become the largest black church in town, with a massive sanctuary containing a balcony, three giant TV screens, space for a band and enough sound equipment to start a club, with multiple locations and services and more choirs than anyone could keep track of — if it weren’t for the senior executive minister of music, Kevin James. He oversees all the choir directors, the senior and youth choirs, the orchestra and the praise teams, all while directing his baby, the St. Stephen Tabernacle Choir. On this Sunday, June 9, the 93rd anniversary of St. Stephen, the choir has become the St. Stephen Tabernacle Reunion Choir, with visitors bulking up the 85-or-so regular members to more than 100. When the choir sings, the sanctuary lights up. People rise to their feet, clap their hands, yell His name, and the drums boom, and the bass riffs, and the organ rips down the walls in everyone’s hearts. James’ choir knows him so well they can follow any movement, even when he does something extemporaneous. When he raises his fist toward heaven, it looks, from the third row of pews, like he’s signaling: Home.


    He has redeemed me,
    and I am His child.

     

    There are the songs that get people clapping, and there are the songs that make them stop and consider. All the pieces sung in St. Stephen must meet a theological standard, must achieve a kind of grace. But perhaps the most powerful type of song is the Heart Song. You have to hear one to know. One night, James changes into jeans and a gray button-down in the private bathroom attached to his office, and strides into a classroom to practice with the Tabernacle Choir. He starts and stops, puts his hands on his diaphragm to remind the singers about breath support. And then, a few songs in, Cynthia Fletcher takes up a microphone. “This is a Heart Song,” James says. Fletcher’s voice enters the room like summer. “Come on, Cynthia!” the choir members call to her. “Sing it!” Tears sparkle in the corners of eyes. Under His wings I am safely abiding, she sings. Though the night deepens and tempests are wild, still I can trust Him. I know He will keep me. He has redeemed me, and I am His child.
     

    This originally appeared in the 2019 Best of Louisville issue of Louisville Magazine. Read more.

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    Photo by Adam Mescan, shutterphotoandfilm.com

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a senior editor at Louisville Magazine.

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