Christopher Riley started singing gospel music about the same time he started school.
By the time he was 11, hed sung in a statewide choir and, as a teen, he was a veteran of a community gospel choir and teaching gospel techniques to his high school choirmates. In college and beyond, he directed and managed a choir and had a gospel music radio show.
So when he came to Fort Wayne to work in the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs at IPFW in 2006, the part of the job that involved organizing an annual gospel festival as part of Black History Month seemed tailor made.
Its grown a lot, he says of the festival, which this year drew about 300 audience members and performers.
The same could be said about the gospel music scene around Fort Wayne, where opportunities to hear gospel are expanding through the contributions of local talent and promoters who bring in musicians with varying styles and backgrounds from around the country.
While gospel music is usually thought of as being part of black churches, I wouldnt want to say its (popularity) is based on any one culture or ethnicity, Riley says. Its predominantly African-American, but there are Caucasian and Latino artists.
Among area gospel success stories is the Southern Gospel Expo, set for April 12 to 15 in Van Wert, Ohio. Started by Trinity Music Ministry in 2002 when 12 groups performed during two nights, the event this year features 21 performances spread over four nights at Trinity Friends Church, 605 N. Franklin St.
Gary Adams, Trinity Music Ministrys founder, says the event, which has free admission, has scored performers from around Indiana and from Florida, Canada, Texas, Ohio, Kentucky and Michigan. Its headlined by the Booth Brothers, who have appeared on the Bill Gaither Homecoming Tours, at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Adams expects an average of 1,000 people a night, many of them from the Fort Wayne area. Details can be found at www.visitvanwert.org.
Adams, who also performs Southern gospel with Trinity, a gospel trio, says he sees gospel music events outside churches growing as churches themselves move away from traditional hymns and songs to contemporary worship music.
A lot of our churches have gone into the contemporary stuff. Thats really caught on, and its caused a lot of divisions in churches, Adams says, adding that people in their 40s through 60s have told him they come to the expo because they miss hearing favorite gospel songs in church or the chance to sing.
A lot of people like the harmonies, he says, adding that many people, especially those south and east of Fort Wayne, are transplanted southerners and find nostalgia in hearing traditional gospel tunes.
Another popular non-church venue for Southern gospel music, The Gospel Barn in Bluffton, will open Saturday with a performance by Hoosier Harmony of Indianapolis. The venue will feature 26 acts with performers from as far away as North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama on most Saturday nights through Oct. 27.
Weve had people calling, and they want to plan their vacation schedules around our performances, says Karen Todd, who runs the eight-year-old venue with her husband, Mike. People do follow these groups. They look on their or our website and theyll drive two or three hours or more to see their favorite groups.
Concerts, which are $10 (children younger than 12 are admitted free), typically attract about 300 people to a refurbished school building at 3550 Indiana 1 South. Among performers this year are the Inspirations, Ivan Parker, the Dove Brothers and the Blackwood Brothers.
The popular Collingsworth Family and the Booth Brothers each will perform twice, and Karen Todd says she expects those shows, which seat more than 500 people and cost $12, will sell out. The schedule is at www.wix.com/gospelbarnofbluffton/gospel-barn-of-bluffton#!.
Deborah Godwin-Starks of Churubusco, who established the 24-hour Fort Wayne-based gospel radio station WQSW-FM 100.5 in 2007, says she thinks the station has helped spread a local awareness of gospel.
Other radio stations offer Christian music, but not gospel music which is more edgy and has Southern roots and a lot of soul, she says. I believe we really fill a need in the Fort Wayne area.
Riley, who is Godwin-Starks son-in-law, and is the weekend station manager, agrees.
Were able to expose the residents to some of the latest in gospel music and gospel music news, he says. Were able to embrace independent artists because were not corporately owned. Ive met people when I first came to Fort Wayne who didnt know there even was a Top 20 in gospel.
WQSWs programming joins Gospel Flight, a longtime program hosted from 4 to 8 a.m. Sundays by Dee McKinley on WBOI-FM 89.1, part of Northeast Indiana Public Radio.
McKinley, 66, has been hosting the show for about 30 years, bringing her love of gospel to Fort Wayne from Birmingham, Ala.
Most churches, and especially African-American churches, every Sunday morning do gospel music, the same kind of music I play on the radio, she says. But its not just African-American churches – Abundant Life on Coliseum (Boulevard) has a gospel group, and (my) listeners are not just African-Americans.
McKinley says the ability to download gospel music from the Internet has increased its popularity locally. I think it would be even more popular if people in Fort Wayne could purchase it, she says. There are not as many outlets to pick up gospel.
Performances of the 40-member Fort Wayne Community Choir, which had its first performance in 2008 and is led by Chris Ford and A. Terrence Brownlee, includes gospel music.
It was supposed to be a one-time-event thing, but choir members asked if we could stay together, Brownlee says. The group performed Sunday at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Wayne.
Riley says he recently recruited performers for IPFWs gospel festival from relatively new groups at Northfield Junior-Senior High School in Wabash and Indiana Tech, where student Darius Darling, a Michigan transplant, started The Anointing Gospel Choir in 2010. Its grown from four to 15 members, he says.
We dont do normal church hymns. We put our own spin on it, says Darling, who calls the style urban contemporary gospel and has written some of the choirs numbers.
As a performer himself, Riley says, theres something freeing about singing some of his favorite gospel songs, which include His Eye is on the Sparrow, Lord, Im Available to You and Jesus, Youre the Center of My Joy.
It makes me feel good. It takes me to another place, says Riley, a baritone.
Its a message about the goodness of God and what he has done. And when youre singing his praise, when God is praised and worshipped, it doesnt go out into the void.