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It's all about soul: What one choir is doing to put a little 'gospel' into the gospel

When Debra Bonner was called to direct the Genesis Group choir four years ago, she had no idea where it would lead her. At the time, the choir was just a small group of African American Latter-day Saints who gathered to sing for special occasions like a ward choir.

But as Bonner put it, she has very high expectations, so it’s no real wonder that the choir shifted gears when she took charge.

“My level of expertise is probably greater than most ward choir directors,” Bonner said, noting her master’s degree in voice performance and a history of working with some of the most well-known vocal coaches in the U.S.

With years of experience singing with a Baptist gospel choir in her youth, prior to joining the Church, Bonner began integrating gospel music and style into the Genesis Group choir’s repertoire.

“What I was able to bring to Genesis was the best of gospel,” Bonner said.

Before long, the choir had gained popularity and was traveling around the state of Utah to perform and laying down tracks to record their music.

As Bonner explained it, the Church leaders who oversaw the group didn’t feel that a ward choir should be traveling around the state, as that wasn’t their purpose, so they released Bonner and the members of the choir from their callings and told them to keep doing what they were doing, but under a new name.

So it was about two years ago when the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir was born. But when President Nelson announced in the spring of 2018 that the Church needed to be recognized by its official name rather than by the various nicknames it has developed over the years, Bonner took the prophet's words to heart.

“It wasn’t really my choir,” Bonner said. “It is Jesus’ choir. So I dropped my name off the front.”

Debra Bonner sings with the Unity Gospel Choir.
Debra Bonner sings with the Unity Gospel Choir. Photo: Courtesy Unity Gospel Choir

The choir is now known as the Unity Gospel Choir, and Bonner said that considering where it started, that name is ideal.

“We love each other even though we’re from different cultures, different races and even different religions as well,” Bonner said.

Since Bonner took over as choir director, and more particularly since the choir branched out on its own, it has grown in size and popularity and even in diversity, but its purpose remains the same: Spreading the word of the gospel and the message of Jesus Christ.

“It seems that when people hear the music, they really resonate with it, and it’s because of the nature of the music. Gospel is really the foundation of American music,” Bonner said, describing why she thinks the choir has grown in popularity over the years.

But it’s more than just the style that people like, Bonner explained, it’s the messages that are inherent in gospel music too.

“Because of the nature of the music and the words of the songs, it just changes our hearts and it’s transforming because the gospel of Jesus Christ is transforming,” Bonner said. “It’s a style that people are somewhat familiar hearing in pop music, yet it has a very spiritual base. It speaks of Christ. Gospel music talks about Jesus; about who He is to me personally, what He’s done for me, how much I love Him. That’s what gospel music is all about.”

Faith and music

Many musicians, like Bonner, see music as a way to connect to other people and to Christ.

For Jenny Oaks Baker, a classical violinist who travels the world performing with her children and as a solo artist, music is connected to her faith in every way.

Violinist Jenny Oaks Baker.
Violinist Jenny Oaks Baker. Photo: Courtesy Jenny Oaks Baker

“I wouldn’t know how to have one without the other,” Baker said. “... I can just rejoice in the spirit I feel as I play, and it’s completely connected. The greatest privilege for me as an artist or musician is to be a vessel for God’s love.”

Baker explained that when she is on stage, she feels the love of God flowing through her like a warm glow, and it connects her to the audience. “God’s love, which is so easily felt through music, is a great unifier. God’s love is universal, everyone can feel it. … And music can convey that love and light in a really powerful way and unify people.”

It’s that sense of unity that comes through both the love of Christ and beautiful music that both Bonner and Baker hope to share this Christmas season as they celebrate the birth of Christ with their upcoming concert titled “A Soulful Christmas.”

A celebration of Christ

Presented by the Unity Gospel Choir with guest artists Jenny Oaks Baker, Loren Allred and the Bonner Family, “A Soulful Christmas” is a one-night celebration that is returning for a third year to the Utah Valley University Event Center on Friday, Nov. 30.

It’s an event to help uplift and unify people in serving and loving one another during the Christmas season.

“Light the World is partnering with us in this concert because we’re all about doing the Lord’s work,” Bonner said. “We welcome all who want to join with us in celebrating and spreading the message of Christ.”

Pulling together many different styles of music under an overall gospel theme, both Bonner and Baker noted how they hope the music will help all who attend better connect to the Savior this season.

“It’s easy to get worldly at Christmastime,” Baker said, noting the heavy focus so many people put on the commercial side of the holiday season. “My goal for this concert is to help people remember the Savior. Hopefully music can be a way back to spirituality at Christmastime and help people remember the Savior in greater abundance.”

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