Unity Choir to offer voices in praise of Martin Luther King

Diverse band of local singers fine-tuning before pair of performances.

At Congregation M’kor Shalom on Jan. 9, Unity Choir was hard at work preparing for twin celebrations of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Pictured from left, the four principals who led the rehearsal: Dr. Evelyn Thomas, Cantor Anita Hochman, Dr. Beverly Mondey-Collins and Donavon Soumas.

Eight days before the kickoff to Unity Choir’s 17th annual performances honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., about 50 souls who lent their ears and then lifted their voices to the heavens intently rehearsed at Congregation M’kor Shalom.

“Sing and never tire,” went the words to one spiritual practiced by the eager participants. The contrast between the silence during instruction by Donavon Soumas and the swell of music and vocalization was stark, but joyful.

The first of Unity Choir’s two shows is a Shabbat service at 8 p.m. Friday, at the Evesham Road synagogue. The second show is slated for Sunday at 3 p.m., at Camden’s Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.

For almost two decades, members of various Baptist church choirs in Southern New Jersey have gathered with singers from M’kor Shalom to celebrate the late civil rights leader and their own diversity. Unity Choir’s creation was a joint effort founded by Cantor Anita Hochman, Dr. Beverly Collins and Dr. Evelyn Thomas.

“It grew from a relationship that one of our rabbis developed with a pastor in Camden and their minister of music, Dr. Collins and myself,” Hochman explained “We got to know each other and started to get to know a little bit about each other’s music and got our two choirs together. Each year, more people started to come on board.

“She (Collins) works with Dr. Thomas, who does some of the directing,” she added. “And then Evelyn brought us Donavon Soumas. He’s from North Jersey and brought a lot of his people. Before we knew it, we went from maybe 50 singers to 80 singers.”

Warmups at rehearsal included stretching — both the vocal and physical kind — that set the tone for the nearly two-hour session, led by Cherry Hill resident Mark Pinzur. Hochman later noted the choir would rehearse four or five songs, and with Soumas, Collins and Thomas directing, they would get the group “rocking and clapping.”

“The first time we’ll sing together is the service,” Hochman said. “We’re celebrating Shabbat. There will be a total of nine songs by us, sprinkled throughout the liturgy of the service. Rabbi Jennifer Frankel will speak to the congregation.

“On Sunday at Mt Calvary,” she added, “it’s more of a concert but we’ll do fewer songs, probably about six or seven songs that day.”

Thomas acknowledged that after all these years, the choir always feels new and fresh and wonderful. For her part, Hochman said M’kor Shalom is “the place to be” Friday, with dignitaries from township governance and throughout the community expected to attend.

“We invite everybody and whoever can come, comes. We have a wonderful diverse gathering of people,” she enthused.

“We layer our music from our different faith backgrounds, and from our different cultural backgrounds. We lift each other up through song and celebration of the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“We’ve made an amazing support system for each other,” Hochman added. “We’ve become like a family over the years and learned a lot from being together and taking care of each other.”