The churchwomen standing behind me on the aluminum bleachers gave my own body a considerable bounce, as they rocked and clapped and sang along with the gospel chorus across the 10-foot chain-link fence.
"Thank you so much for enjoying God with us!" shouted a young musician in an orange blouse, standing on a makeshift stage. "Praise God for the church in the park!" Children rode around the baseball diamonds on their bicycles, and danced around clutching bottles of Mountain Dew. Off to the side, a food truck served ribs and chicken. And The Anointed Masons, eight women who came together in 1995 to sing at a relative's funeral, belted out their adorations. "There is a stranger in town, he's giving sight to the blind," they sang, "He is the great emancipator, he turns water to wine."
Their voices were gorgeous, and the small crowd at Durham's Lyon Park ate up their offerings. The octet left the stage as the sun set, to be replaced by the baggy-pantsed gospel rapper Mario Toomer: "I was born in sin and shaped in iniquity / My life has been hell and bounded up in chains for years / I soaked in tears and tried to cope with life with a chill / But he could reveal, I guess it wasn't my time to shine." The evening grew dark and the floodlights came on, and we who sat beneath them brushed away a rain of gnats.
I suspect I was the only one in the audience contemplating the separation of church and state. That's because this concert was sponsored by the City of Durham Parks and Recreation Department, which means our tax dollars brought the Gospel to this impoverished neighborhood. And not just run-of-the-mill Gospel: Both Toomer and The Anointed Masons are associated with Mount Zion Christian Church, whose pastor, Donald Fozard, is one of the primary voices of Durham's Religious Right. Fozard came to prominence in 1986 when he helped mount an unsuccessful recall campaign against Mayor Wib Gulley for supporting gay rights. He's been on similar crusades ever since.
So, was the city wrong to fund Fozard's flock to spread their religious message in a public park? I think not. When it comes to culture, even government-funded culture, I'd rather see a joyful cacophony than an inoffensive program of Pops Lite. Bring on the conservative Christians. Bring on the Muslims, too. The racy blues singers, the lesbian folkies, the 50 Cent wannabes, the mournful ranchera balladeers. They are what distinguish us from the bland suburbs of Middle America, and I want to hear more of their discordant symphony, not less.