Looking out at thousands of people clapping and swaying to gospel music in the middle of a city street, Pastor Wayne Chaney Jr. smiled as he recalled that the Long Beach Gospel Fest and Downtown Worship Experience began a year ago as a modest grassroots show for local congregations.
By contrast, this year's celebration of the Gospel Fest was a sprawling, daylong outdoor event based on the snappy rhythmic swirls of a repertoire that rings strong in the heart of black culture.
Bouquets of white roses decorated the stage on the corner of Pine Ave. and Broadway, where choir members from more than 35 churches belted out visceral solos and dazzling collaborations that spread the message of Jesus.
A block-long stretch of Pine Ave. was closed to traffic for the event last Sunday, and spectators sitting at sidewalk cafe tables and folding chairs raised their hands in prayer and appreciation.
"Last year, we had less than three weeks to pull it together and we ended up with about 3,000 people," said Chaney, pastor of Antioch Church of Long Beach, a co-sponsor of the festival. "Look at us now: We have twice that many people, and you can hear us a quarter-mile away."
"Against the backdrop of a big-city skyline, it has an especially beautiful resonance," he said. "Beyond the gospel music, we are witnessing the addition of something new and wonderful to Long Beach."
Hosted by the church, the office of Long Beach City Councilman Dee Andrews and downtown Long Beach business owners, among others, the fledgling Gospel Fest appears poised to become a regional attraction in a city known for its homegrown jazz and blues festivals.
"From now on, when someone on the other side of the nation asks, 'What do you know about Long Beach?' " Chaney mused, "the response will be, 'It's the home of the Aquarium of the Pacific, the Queen Mary … and the Gospel Fest.' "
The festival opened with a series of sermons delivered from the stage by local pastors; each touted the value of hard work, civic engagement, dedication to family and spiritual striving as antidotes to such challenges as drugs, chronic unemployment and domestic violence.
Pastor Sheridan E. McDaniel of Worship Center Community Church in Long Beach had a special message for young men in the audience.
"I challenge you to rise up and take your rightful places," he said. "If you don't have a job, don't get married. If you are not married, don't have kids."
His words elicited spontaneous responses from the audience. "Amen!" someone shouted. "Hallelujah!" yelled another.
Next, the Antioch Church gospel choir stepped to the microphones and, backed by an energetic band, opened the show with ecstatic performances of the songs, "I'm Going to Praise Him" and "Chasing After You."
Antioch choir leader Letonius Earl, 29, said it wasn't easy to decide which songs to perform for a large crowd surrounded by distractions peculiar to the venue: billboard signs, municipal buses, restaurants and passersby.
"After lots of last minute adjustments to the song list," he said, "we settled on five songs that ministered to people's hearts, were upbeat and celebrated the glory of God."
Long Beach city officials have suggested that next year's Gospel Fest be held in a local park with plenty of room for vendor booths. But Chaney feels differently.
"We love the concept of singing gospel and ministering in the center of the city," Chaney said. "Next year, perhaps we can think about doing it on a wider street with a little more room. But we definitely don't want to leave downtown."
Councilman Andrews agreed. "We don't want to move to a city park — this is not just another concert," he said. "All these people came out for spiritual enhancement. This is about screaming and hollering, 'Praise the Lord!' because that's how we do it."
Nearby, Gale Nichols, 51, leaned back in a blue lawn chair and snapped her fingers to the pulsing beat. Nichols said she was impressed to see "so many people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds gathered together on one downtown street."
Nichols confessed that she had skipped her regular Sunday service to attend the gospel celebration, but then it dawned on her: "I guess you could say I'm at church now."