On a cold, March night twenty men make their way into North Preston’s Saint Thomas Baptist church. Some still wear work boots. They gather at the front of the lofty room, where a red carpet snugly covers a wooden stage. At tonight’s practice they will sing as a gospel choir.

Mandy Smith switches on a recording, a lively gospel song. On a wireless mic he sings along, practicing dance moves across the stage. He’s full of energy. Everyone else, not so much – yet. But Mandy, in a loose grey hoodie, is working the stage like it’s Madison Square Garden, weaving through rows of choir members. Talking among themselves, waiting for the band to warm up, they look like they’re used to Mandy’s enthusiasm.

The church is the town hall of North Preston, a small, talented, loving community a half-hour northeast of Halifax. Sunday service is its weekly pièce de résistance. The church is a powerhouse, a support system for budding musicians, and almost literally the centre of a family. One band member guesses that 85% of the people at tonight’s practice are related.

The band is all warmed up. The first play-through sounds great. The choir members have big smiles, which seem to make every note sound warmer. Mandy is a gifted singer, even when tasked with a new song. He floats around the stage like wind is blowing him, keeping full vocal control, and never runs out of breath.

He’s animated like a cartoon character. At one point he sings “and I won’t turn around” while dancing across the stage and literally turning around 360 degrees, without missing a beat. Making the move smooth, he laughs out loud.

Mandy Smith extends his arm, guiding the band.
caption When the band is playing in Saint Thomas Baptist Church, music can be heard from a block away.
Julian Abraham

During a pause, Mandy fine-tunes part of the song with the choir. He tells the singers that one line has to be exceptionally high energy: “I won’t trade nothin’ for my journey now.”

A man in the choir asks, “but what does that mean?” Smith replies matter-of-factly, “You’re on a journey as a servant of god – you’re not gonna trade anything for that, right?” The next run-through sounds much better.

It’s about the people

There is something about this place. Everyone is close, but not cliquey. People show interest in you, but it’s not feigned like someone in a grocery store trying to sell you a credit card. Nobody’s selling anything, they just want you to feel welcome.

Many people make it feel this way, and one of them is Floyd Colley. The drummer in the church band, he’s a jolly person, quick to crack a joke. He is so dedicated to his nickname, BigFlo, that it’s on his business card. At the end of his voicemail recording, he optimistically says “be blessed.” He speaks enthusiastically, often punctuating his convictions by lightly hitting whatever object is in reach.

Floyd Colley sits at his drum set for a church band practice.
caption Church drummer Floyd Colley says “music hits the soul… it lifts me.”
Julian Abraham

For him, something was missing before he got involved in church. In his early twenties he was a deejay and spent lots of time going to nightclubs. A few years later, when he was baptized, everything changed. “I felt like I got more out of going to the church than going to the club.”

In 2017 Saint Thomas suffered a fire that caused $200,000 worth of damage. It was closed for six months, and services held at the local community centre.

Was it the same? “It doesn’t matter if you have church in the church, a community centre, or in a Tim Hortons,” Colley says. “It’s about the people.”

“Music hits the soul. If I’m having a bad day, I just think of a tune, any tune – and it lifts me. I like music that has a real nice beat… but when it comes to gospel music – you gotta listen to the words. It’s almost like they’re talking to you.”  – Floyd Colley

Born to sing

During the practice Reeny Smith sits at the organ. At 27 she’s the youngest person in the room. She’s the only woman, too.

Reeny sits on an elevated part of the stage, wearing a jean jacket and a headband. Upright at her keyboard, she looks like an office manager on casual Friday.

Reeny Smith sits at the church's organ
caption Two-time ECMA winner Reeny Smith has been playing in the Saint Thomas church band since she was twelve.
Julian Abraham

When not at church she’s a great R&B singer, and has made a career out of it. In the last five years she’s opened for Alex Cuba, Anderson Paak and Lisa Fischer. She has two East Coast Music Awards, and once sang for the Prime Minister.

Here in Saint Thomas Baptist, during a practice night when the only people in the church are musicians and a choir, a silent respect for her pervades the room.

Reeny’s first electric piano was a Christmas gift when she was five; she took it right up to her bedroom and set about learning. By twelve she was ready to play organ in the church band, getting her first stage experience.

At tonight’s practice one of Reeny’s jobs is to start each song. For a moment she looks up, counting in her head, bobbing to a tune. She’s calculating the exact tempo for the song, and looks like she’s solving an easy math problem. After a few seconds Reeny, almost whispering, counts aloud, “one, two, three, four.” The band stops talking and starts playing.

As an R&B solo singer she works the front of the stage at music festivals and concert halls, lighting up crowds with her booming voice and glowing personality. She was born to be a singer.

Most other times, she’s reserved. She doesn’t talk unless strictly necessary, although once she does start talking she is warm and friendly.

Her solo career was a long battle with shyness.

She won.

Reeny Smith in her home studio
caption Reeny Smith sang for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he visited North Preston last year.
Julian Abraham

The big day

On Sunday morning ladies in bright, colourful dresses with matching hats tiptoe over snowbanks into the church. Men wear extravagant, loose-fitting suits and wide-legged pants. One is wearing zebra print shoes, the pants rolled up to show them off. Pleasantly thumping gospel music can be heard a block away.

Swing the door open, and you’ll hear the choir singing at full steam.

A man with a bright smile greets you. He’s wearing a perfectly-tailored burgundy suit with white gloves. His sash says “Ronald”; he’s one of the ushers. Shouting a bit, trying to be heared over the music, he says with a hearty laugh, “my name’s Ronnie, but my wife calls me Ronald when I’m in trouble.” (The music has the added bonus of making sure she didn’t hear that.)

Before the service, as everyone arrives, the choir and band perform a few songs. People make their way in, catching up, hugging. Kids at this church service look less bored than what you might expect, and happy to see their friends.

Everyone’s in their seats.

Reeny’s grandfather, Pastor Wallace Smith Sr., takes the stage, greets the crowd, and starts to preach. Reeny plays organ softly, letting out a wobbly, heavenly chord after every key point he makes. The choreography of this is amazing – she knows exactly when he’s going to pause, making way for an organ note. “I’ve been playing with him for so long, I just know when to crank it up,” she said. They have been sharing a stage every Sunday since Reeny was twelve, except when Reeny can’t make it home because she’s on tour.

A close-up of Reeny Smith playing the organ in church.
caption Reeny Smith struggled with stage fright until grade eleven, until she had what she calls her “awakening.”
Julian Abraham

After Pastor Smith’s sermon, the band and choir move into another lively song. Most of the congregation stand up and start dancing in the pews.

Floyd Colley is on the drums. He’s wearing a loose-collared shirt, and looks happy to be here. His head bobs to the beat in a smooth, forward-and-up motion. While using both hands to drum he somehow waves to a friend who just arrived. It’s not the first time he’s done that, and it won’t be the last.

Two older women are up in front of the pews, in front of the stage, holding hands and dancing. They wear matching purple dresses and hats. It’s a cute scene; they look like adults and toddlers at the same time.

A third older woman, sitting on the second-floor balcony, dramatically gets up and begins a jovial strut to the beat of the song. People cheer her on. She performs this same exaggerated walk all the way down the stairs and joins the two matching ladies. On her face is a gigantic smile. The matching ladies are thrilled.

The next segment of church, testimony, is where anyone can take the microphone and give a mini-sermon. Pastor Smith, with a grin, says, “try to keep it brief, please.” The crowd laughs in a knowing way; this might have been an issue in the past.

A man in his thirties recounts how he almost got hit by a boulder at his construction job, and thanked God for saving him – and he meant it.

The second person, an older lady, offers a general thank you to God, saying how grateful she is for her children, and everyone who cares for her. It is touching and sincere. As she finishes and comes down from the stage, people hug her.

The third testimony starts when a tall, slim man wearing shiny sunglasses stands up. An usher hands him a microphone, and he pauses. Instead of speaking he starts singing a wild and beautifully soulful vocal riff. He sounds like a rock star, and looks like one. He’s completely serious about this – which makes it even funnier, because judging by the crowd’s laughs and cheers, he’s a known jokester.

Reeny, smiling and shaking her head, looks into the audience and she and a friend make eye contact. Both burst out laughing. Reeny stares down at her keyboard, visibly trying to keep it together. It’s all in good humour.

The man is still singing. The band realizes they know the song, so start playing along. Everyone joins in. What was supposed to be a brief, spoken testimony has somehow turned into a song that isn’t on the itinerary, but nobody seems to mind.

The man, still singing and dancing, motions to one of the ushers to come and sing the rest. After much encouragement from the audience, the usher, who looks about sixteen, hesitantly takes the mic.

He walks about ten feet with it, over to a small hallway near the stage, where he hides away from sight. He starts singing really well. All you can see is the back of his shoulders and his body shaking with every vibrato. Everyone cheers by far the loudest cheer so far.

After a few verses, he comes out with a bashful smile – and is met with a standing ovation. Surrounded by people who want the best for him, another talented kid goes home knowing he can.

An abridged form of this story first appeared in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.

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This story is part of the 'Sturdy tales for worried people' series.
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    AnitaLouise Martinez

    This is soooooo wonderful...I wish there were a few live video clips...but the is absolutely great to learn about what is going on...and the wonderful amazing people that are all working to make it so amazing!!!
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From this series

This story is part of the 'Sturdy tales for worried people' series.
More from the 'Sturdy tales for worried people' series