On a cold November night in Milwaukee, New Paradise Missionary Baptist Church is holding a special service featuring several groups of gospel musicians.
“There’s an array of gospel singers in the city of Milwaukee, not only here but Racine, Waukegan,” said Ella Ray, who sings with a group called the Queens of Harmony, one of the featured groups on this night.
“We start the service off and there’s only two or three or three or four sitting around and then all of a sudden you look around, the church is packed,” Ray said. “Everybody that we associate with, they love gospel singing.”
Ray’s group, the Queens of Harmony, have been singing gospel quartet style for fifty years.
“The group got started because my husband sang with the Masonic Wonders, and we decided there was enough wives to start a group of our own,” said Jessie McCullum, the group’s senior member.
Members of the Queens of Harmony say singing together lets them express their own spirituality and share it with others.
“There’s nothing else that suits me, that makes me feel something worthwhile, that gives me joy, gives me excitement,” Ray said.
“You get this feeling of fulfilment, because you’re reaching out to somebody, and they’re responding to you in a spiritual sense,” said Julia Love, another member. “Sometimes, a song can really touch a person’s heart to the point where they’re like ‘Okay, this is really what I needed in my life,’” said Julia Love, another member of the group.
The power of their music has taken these women around Wisconsin and around the world.
“(It’s) taken me places I never thought we’d be able to go, never thought I would go,” Ray said. “We … had a nice time in Washington, D.C., we were there for 14 days and we sang every day, twice a day … A couple years after that, we were swished off to Japan … that was an experience.”
Through their music and travels, the women say they’ve built a bond with one another.
“My children call the other members of the group ‘auntie,’” Ray said.
“We love God … and then we love each other,” Love said. “We respect each other, and we’re kind of on the same wavelength, you know?”