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Dallas homeless choir strikes all the right notes


Marcia Davis-Seale/RNS

Choirmaster Chris Snidow, right, accompanies members of the homeless choir at the Austin Street Centre in Dallas. From left to right are, front row, Mike Ricker, Heather Butler, and Rufus Barnes; on back row are Debbie Whiddon, George Alexander, Ronald Butler, and Harold Baker.

DALLAS, Texas — It’s Wednesday morning at the Austin Street Centre and the gates are open at the faith-based fortress at the foot of the downtown skyline. The bell in the tower clatters harshly against the cold wind, beckoning those on the streets for a pious word or two, a prayer, perhaps a cracker crumb dipped in the Communion cup.

Up in the low-ceilinged chapel loft, Chris Snidow is shifting gears from psychiatric nurse to choirmaster as his proteges straggle in for a midweek worship service.

From the front row, a tall and strapping Rufus Barnes clears his throat. He’s missing the other half of his duet, so he’ll go solo today. Other key vocalists are no-shows, so yesterday’s carefully planned repertoire is abandoned as if it had never been rehearsed.

Barnes grew up singing in the church, then spent years singing the blues in smoky night clubs, jive joints, and now, on the streets. Diabetes took part of his foot and any prospects of steady work. He lost his family, his home, and eventually most of his belongings.

He’s written a million lyrics before tearing them up. He never thought – homeless and older than 50 – he would fulfill his lifelong dream of actually recording a song he’d written. “Just something to talk about,” he said.

But that’s just what’s happening at the 400-bed shelter. Rising above the sour notes of hardship, the voices of the shelter’s transient homeless choir have found a permanent home on a professionally recorded CD of spiritual songs labeled The Seasons of Austin Street.

Seasons includes a few Christmas songs and a poem, “Homelessness,” written by a former shelter dweller whom no one’s seen for a while. Snidow hopes she’s still alive. He has “sent word out on the street to tell her to come in,” he said.

A small portion of the proceeds from the $20 CD cover recording costs; most money, Snidow said, goes to shelter operations. The 120 church groups that support the shelter are snapping them up.

Attendance at rehearsals was forever unpredictable, so Snidow instead escorted the members of his choir, one by one, to his cramped home sound studio to record their parts.

Laying down each voice separately, adding music, track by track, it took him 18 months to painstakingly synthesize a cohesive group presence and performance, and send the finished CD to be reproduced.

“This choir has given many a spiritual reconnection, and helped their self-esteem,” he said.

Which is not to say that pulling together a homeless choir is a simple feat.

Snidow would like to find time to rehearse Christmas music. But the daily rhythm of shelter life – anger management classes, job interviews, and doctor’s appointments – always seem to get in the way.

Somewhere in her 50s, Debbie Whiddon’s eyes reflect the pain of a shattered life tentatively glued back together, holding for now.

She remembers taking voice lessons. But music got lost in the struggle to raise two sons and survive 20 years at the backhand of an abusive husband. She escaped to the streets, where she drank in her fill of hardship and hard liquor.

“I started out as a client,” she says, “and now I work here and have a future.”