Editor’s Note: Guest editor Panama Jackson has hand-selected a group of acclaimed writers to curate this special series of personal narratives celebrating Black music, in preparation for the National Museum of African American Music’s January 2021 opening.
“You’re going too high, Candice. You’ve got to stay with your note.” Mama had been working with me for weeks to remain an alto while singing “I’m Available to You” by Rev. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers. This particular time, I’d begun to wade into soprano territory. The week prior, I was a baritone on my way to bass. If Mama had become frustrated with my inability to hold a note, she never showed it. But this particular third Sunday, dubbed “Youth Choir Sunday” at Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, we were debuting the song during morning service and I had to get it right. There’s nothing worse than being off-key in a Black church choir. My mama didn’t want that fate for me, even if I was too young to know I didn’t want it for myself.
For the most part, I sang in tune. That’s because our choir director, Twana Southerland-Gilliam, had to keep giving all of us our parts. We were singing all over the place. To be fair, we were the youth choir. We weren’t expected to be the powerhouses like the O. B. Cook Gospel Choir—my mother’s choir that dominated the second and fourth Sundays at Zion Hill. We weren’t singing any intricate songs that required several key modulations and tongue-tying lyrics.
As children, we were relegated to mostly hymns and gospel songs that were considered kid-friendly. “I’m Available to You” was one such song. Though the Thompson Community Singers were adults, it was perfect for young people who needed to learn how to sing clearly and within the proper key.
While I never recall this happening during Mama’s choir rehearsals, in youth choir rehearsal, we always listened to a song or read the hymn and explained what we thought to be the song’s meaning. Perhaps, it was our leaders’ way of ensuring we could understand all the words and wouldn’t be singing something that was completely out of our depth. For me, it felt like an opportunity to make my relationship with God even more personal. We’d spend so much time in Sunday School, Wednesday night bible study and Vacation Bible School being told what to believe that these moments in youth choir rehearsal gave us an opportunity to put faith into our own words and explain what it all meant to us.
And with “I’m Available to You,” that wasn’t a difficult task. Rev. Brunson had written a song that was the sentiment of most Christians. Beginning with “you gave me my hand to reach out to man, to show him your love and your perfect plan,” the intent was clear. We weren’t created simply to exist; we were created to make a difference. Our lives should always point others in the direction of the one we’re living for. A line in the song’s chorus outlines that most simplistic prayer: “Use me, Lord, to show someone the way and enable me to say my storage is empty and I am available to you.”
Though we usually sang three or four songs a service, we only sang “I’m Available to You” as the sermonic selection before our pastor preached, or as the invitational hymn–a song intended to prick a sinful heart towards salvation or provide the musical encouragement as someone went to the altar for special prayer. If we sang it before the sermon, our then-pastor, Rev. John H. Walker, would ask the congregation if we were glad that God still saw fit to use us.
As he gathered himself to preach, he would ask Zion Hill to think about who we used to be and how grateful we should be that Jesus cleans us up and we’re even available to be used by God. A chorus of “amens” and “thank you, Lords” made it clear that Zion Hill was, indeed, grateful and ready to receive the word. When used as the invitational hymn, Rev. Walker would ask who wanted to be made whole and fit for the Master’s use so they could point somebody else to Christ. As lost souls stepped into the aisle to find redemption, the congregation clapped. We sang even harder, feeling somewhat accomplished.
Each time we sang “I’m Available to You,” something magical happened. The response wasn’t simply a round of respectful applause that equated to nothing more than a “bless their hearts.” Instead, the congregation sang along with us, standing in agreement and wiping away tears. A few times, those moments carried into an extended praise break as a wail in the back corner turned into a shout; before you knew it, the entire church caught on fire with the Holy Ghost. Some of us in the choir would sit down and sneak Now & Laters to each other while everyone was preoccupied. See, even if we understood what the words meant, many of us were still too young to understand what the song itself meant and why it brought even the deacons and trustees, who rarely exhibited any emotion during service, to tears.
And yet, there were some of us old enough to watch as our parents praised God and knew that the moment was about something deeper. As it turns out, my mother’s tears and jubilation weren’t because I got better at staying on key as I got older and more practiced. Even if I didn’t know the deepest longings of Mama’s heart, I knew she sang “my will I give to you, I’ll do what you say do” from a pure place. She wanted God to be pleased with her life and she was teaching me to desire the very same thing. Currently, I’m the same age my mother was when we were singing at Zion Hill and I get it now. There comes a time when you realize that life is about so much more than chasing relative success and stability. It is about a heart of service and living out God’s design for interdependence, communion and kinship.
Rev. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers released “I’m Available to You” in 1988 and it’s still played on gospel radio and sung by choirs–both youth and adult–across the country. Its message is timeless and reminds us to keep our eyes on the ultimate goal. But it does that and so much more for me. Becoming one of the songs Mama and I loved to sing together throughout my childhood and young adult years, it reminds me of a devoted mother who suffered through her daughter’s vocal musings to help her get it right for Sunday morning. And it reminds me of the church home that taught me this: The greatest thing I will ever be in this life is a vessel.
–Candice Marie Benbow
Candice Marie Benbow is an essayist, screenwriter, and theologian, and author of Red Lip Theology, releasing in 2022.