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Singing With Amazing Grace : Youngsters Get Turned On to Music, Turned Off From ‘Running the Streets’

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

They were only junior high school age, mostly, but they were surly and disobedient and profane beyond their years.

They fought, argued, smoked dope and blew fury at any adult foolish enough to challenge them. They personified every delinquent tendency that comes from what is all too romantically known as “running the streets” of their neighborhoods in South-Central Los Angeles .

“Some of the rudest little things you’ve ever seen,” remembered one neighbor, Rosemary Smith.

“They really could cuss,” said another, Mary Grant, with sardonic admiration. “I learned some nice words.”

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‘Bunch of Them Were Loose’

“I always thought Camarillo didn’t know that a bunch of them were loose,” Lena Duncan added.

They were not so villainous that they seemed destined to wind up making illegal withdrawals from banks. But they were so impossibly undisciplined that it seemed likely they would never make an honest deposit, either.

With that in mind, a sympathetic person might have tried to straighten them out, and he might have wasted years trying. And he might have quit in disgust and walked away. And finally, out of the most quixotic of impulses and against his better judgment, he might have come back and tried again.

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Which is what Terry Reed did.

And darned if it didn’t work.

After years of lectures and prayers and threats, Reed, Grant and Duncan have sculpted those few dozen ragged children into a well-comported gospel choir, replete with blue-and-white dresses and suits, original songs, an occasional booking and devout worship services.

And manners.

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No longer do the youngsters contemptuously roll their eyes at each other, or fight inside and outside churches, or curse ministers during services, or flash taunting hand signals at passing cars of street gang members.

The story of the Vessels of Christ Ministry Community Choir is a small success that plays bigger in a community where economic hardship, broken families and neglect hamper children’s mastery of self-control .

‘Completely Changed’

“Something special happened,” said Willie Mae Turner, who often had to “stop the bus and pray” when transporting the choir. “Terry had some kids in there who were really little gang (fighters), and those kids have completely changed.”

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“If we weren’t involved in this, we’d be involved in a lot more trouble than when we started out,” said Aquanetta Davis, 14, her words rushing urgently. “Some

of us--half of us--probably would be in jail or runaways or committed suicide or something like that.”

The metamorphosis, as told by those who watched it evolve, would have warmed the cockles of Father Flanagan’s heart.

Not that anybody is going to mistake Terry Reed for Father Flanagan.

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Flanagan was the kindly, bespectacled Catholic priest with an Irish brogue who built Boy’s Town in Omaha, Neb., out of the memorable creed, “Remember--there are no bad boys.” When Hollywood decided to film his life, it cast Spencer Tracy.

In Reed’s case, a casting director’s first call would probably be to Little Richard.

A flamboyant, 27-year-old preacher with a head of thick, cascading curls, Reed has neither a church nor formal ordination. He ministers out of his mother’s home near 130th Street in Willowbrook. His demeanor flashes between the exclamation points of a charismatic evangelist, the menacing stares of a stern disciplinarian and the wispy gestures and soft voice of a distinctly effeminate man.

His style and stubbornness have made him an outcast from a number of South-Central churches that hosted the choir in its early days but were repelled by the children’s unruly ways and asked them not to come back. The Vessels of Christ now travel in a caravan of cars to places such as Santa Barbara and Riverside to find Sunday church audiences.

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No matter. The lessons have been learned.

‘Rags to Riches’

“Parents can send the worsest child to Rev. Reed, and within a matter of time they will see a change,” proclaimed David Clowder, 21, the choir’s male lead soloist who said he grew up plagued by moods of defiance, rebellion and violence but has learned to shed them. “It took me half a second to slug you in the mouth if you looked at me wrong. But it’s amazing how you can see someone go from rags to riches as far as personality changes.”

What Reed brought to the choir, the youngsters said, was an unusual combination of youthful empathy, intense spirituality and a severe, hair-trigger demand for orderliness.

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“When I first met Terry, I was what you call bad,” Davis said. “I didn’t like him. I said things that I regret now. Now that I’ve grown to learn his ways, I love him.”

But Reed’s satisfaction at the changes in the youthful singers is tempered by the emotional grind of the last 2 1/2 years.

“They are not where they should be,” he said. “But it’s a blessing that they are not where they used to be. But if I had to live it again, I wouldn’t.”

Lena Duncan started it.

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Duncan, a no-nonsense physical education teacher at a South-Central junior high school, had periodically tried to redeem bad kids by molding them into neighborhood gospel choirs, providing keyboard accompaniment.

She sought out “the worst crew,” said Clowder, who has known Duncan for more than a decade. “Those that the teachers and counselors had given up on, kids whose parents had gotten to that point where you take your hand off your child because he’s gotten so impossible.”

In the fall of 1983, Duncan got into a jam because some of her singers were so rowdy that she could not direct them and play piano and control their behavior at the same time. She asked Reed, a teacher’s assistant at another South-Central junior high, for help.

Had His Own Skirmishes

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Reed had been having his own skirmishes. As a teen-ager he had moved with his mother from Louisiana to Los Angeles, leaving behind a painful childhood. Because of his soft voice and mannerisms and the fact that he had spent much of his boyhood doing indoor chores, he was often misperceived as a homosexual, he said.

In Los Angeles, he sought spiritual help at a number of churches. “All I wanted to do was work with a minister who had a group of young people. I just wanted to direct the choir and sing.” But he said he often wound up leaving because of disputes.

He accepted Duncan’s request. Then he heard the children sing.

“They had a desire to sing,” he said, “but they couldn’t. I told Lena no. But when I walked out, the choir all walked with me.” He decided to stay.

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Smoothing out the music was the easiest part. Some of the children, like Clowder and Davis’ younger sister, Bianca, showed considerable promise in tackling gospel’s demanding blend of harmonics, emotion and sheer vocal force. Gradually, performance dates were arranged at some smaller South-Central churches, which, lacking choirs of their own, are often pleased to have gospel interludes at Sunday services.

Trying to control the children en masse was another matter.

Reed, Grant and Duncan were sitting around one day reminiscing about the nightmares, laughing and cringing hard.

“I preached until my voice was no more,” Reed said. “Ohhhh, they would sing you happy. But when it came to obedience. . . .” And he was off on a tale of tantrums, fights and epithets.

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‘Cuss Each Other Out’

“They would stand up in church and cuss each other out while the minister was preaching,” Reed said. “The minister would tell ‘em to behave, and they’d stand up and say, ‘I’m gonna pull my gun on you!’

“They started to call me Daddy, and I heard people in churches look at me and say, ‘Lord, what kind of man would raise children like that?’ ”

“A lot of times, I wanted to knock their heads off,” said Grant, who had volunteered to help out with the children and wound up marrying Reed last year. “They’ve raised a hand at me. They’ve pulled out a knife.” Smiling, Reed stood up. “This was Lena,” he said, and began a shrill, angered imitation: “You mis-fits! You re-jects! Nobody wants you! Sit down!”

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Duncan, who often arranged the girls’ school schedules to make sure they were in her gym class, nodded. “All of ‘em had a problem,” she said, “and the problem was different with each one. I was wasting my time, but I never gave up. I got to thinking, the kids need somebody. They don’t have the kind of parents who make ‘em go to Sunday school.”

“We were very disruptive,” admitted Clowder. “I mean, if I was the minister, I would have kicked us out myself.”

Early last year, Grant arranged a trip to Disneyland that disintegrated when many of Reed’s flock scattered over the park and could not be found. A large group was located in a bathroom with alcohol and marijuana. “The man at Disneyland said, ‘Please don’t bring ‘em back no more,’ ” Grant said.

The next Sunday, when the children met for services at his mother’s home, Reed turned off the lights and began praying for the children’s salvation.

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“This was still at a time when nobody really liked each other,” remembered Clifford Fuller, 17, “but the next thing you knew, everybody was walking around, hugging and kissing. For some people it lingered on.”

Weary From the Demands

But not long enough. A few months later Reed gave up, weary from the demands of trying to emotionally and spiritually minister to so many children.

“I told Lena, ‘You can have those kids.’ But there wasn’t a day I rested without someone calling. Their parents wanted me to come back. I’d have some parent call me and say, ‘You know you love my children,’ and I’d say, ‘There ain’t that much love in heaven.’ ”

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Ultimately, Reed relented and the effort resumed. Progress was being made. “He gave us confidence,” Clowder said. “That’s the problem with some of us. We don’t have that confidence; we say we can’t do that and we can’t achieve this and he just lets you know you can .”

A few months after Reed came back, Lena Duncan’s mother died and Duncan “went into a shell” and refused to attend practice for several months. Finally, last February, Duncan came to a rehearsal.

“They were so quiet they almost scared me,” she said. “I went to the piano and we went through choir rehearsal and it was very successful. I was looking for the troublemakers and they were quiet and they were listening.”

A month later, Reed was holding his customary prayer and repentence services before rehearsal when something unusual happened. For the first time, one of the children stood up and offered to repent.

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“It was a girl I had wanted to kick out of the choir--Lena had talked me out of it--and that night she stood up and began to talk about her life, and when she said, ' . . . but since I became a Vessel. . . .’ ”

He stopped and rocked back in his wooden chair, still marveling at the moment.

“It showed me the kids knew more than the adults think they do,” he said, and his voice began to take on great rapture. “It scares me so, in a way, because they’re growing so rapidly. To know where they’ve come from and how they’ve carried knives and worn their pants falling off their behinds. Oh, we have been through it!”

There would be more to go through.

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For one thing, while the Vessels of Christ seemed to have reformed, they had yet to perform in a South-Central church since their painful series of evictions.

On a cold Friday night earlier this month, though, there was great anticipation. Reed had arranged for the Vessels to make three rapid-fire appearances on Sunday afternoon at neighborhood services.

Waiting for Reed to show up, the children practiced some standard gospel numbers. Twelve-year-old Bianca Davis, dressed in royal blue and looking nothing like the obstinate terror that her mentors had once described, stood in the living room, in front of a drummer and organist Duncan. She faced the choir, which jammed the dining room. As her foot ground a small semicircle against the carpet, her body swayed slightly, and she sang slowly, gracefully, forcefully, her unamplified voice soaring through the house:

If eh . . . vuh . . . re . . . boddddd . . . dee

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Loved Jeeee . . . sus

There would be no trouble. . . .

Eventually, Reed arrived and took charge of the choir, and what had once been a casual side-to-side motion of bodies was transformed into a snappy, rhythmic swirl as Reed began to clap his hands fast and hard, his arms whipping far behind him, then rushing together like powerful cymbals.

His fingers stabbed the air and his hips shook and his shirt became drenched with sweat and the pounding of voices and percussion and organ exploded through the small house.

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Unbridled Energy

Over the chorus, Reed and Clowder exchanged gleeful exclamations, reveling in the unbridled energy that surrounded them. Reed’s singing voice was too scratchy to be professional but his ferocity was riveting, and under his spell the choir continued to sing, the girls trying to cool off by tugging on the collars of their dresses or fanning themselves with a hand. Someone began banging a tambourine.

During a break, Reed ticked off Sunday’s venues--3:30 at a church near 42nd Street, 4:30 at a hotel hall near USC, 6 at a church near 108th Street--and then paused to prophesy.

“We gonna tear it up,” he said solemnly.

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It did not come to pass.

The church near 42nd was actually near 47th--somebody wrote it down wrong--and by the time the caravan got the directions straight, its chance to perform was over.

The service near USC, held by another independent preacher in a converted hotel pub, soured when the preacher insisted that the Vessels perform during her collection period. Reed refused. “God ain’t stupid,” he said later. “He wouldn’t tell me to sing to people in the middle of an offering.”

When it came time to sing, the choir was forced to stand behind the audience, so that it sang to the backs of their heads unless they cared to crane their necks. They provoked some enthusiasm, but the host preacher cut them off because they had started late.

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‘Turned Their Noses Up’

The choir arrived for its third performance when the church’s services were nearly completed, and while the Vessels were allowed to perform, their aggressive, up-tempo style was less sophisticated than the audience. “The older folks turned their noses up at them,” Reed lamented.

Many of the children were depressed by Sunday’s events, and Reed vowed an end to Los Angeles performances. They would trek to the hinterlands--to Santa Barbara, where a local minister had pledged to put them on radio and organize a brief tour of his neighboring communities.

Reed would have to repeat a basic lesson. “He tells you,” Clowder explained, “that if you fall, you get back up, take a cold shower and get back out there. He told me it’s not how many times you get dirty, it’s how many times you can get yourself up and get it back together and get on the ball.”

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