Salvation Island

Mt. Sinai Church just got a lot louder.

Nevada Barr Joseph-Beth Booksellers 7 p.m. Thursday, February 22
Annie Browning and Darrin Jennings. - Walter  Novak
Annie Browning and Darrin Jennings.
God has always been a multimedia experience. Crashing thunder, parting clouds, tearing the temple in two -- He knows the value of sound and visuals. When He sent Moses up on Mt. Sinai, He wasn't bouncing ideas off the nearest boulder. He projected in divine stereo to the sandaled minions below.

Now, being a thoroughly modern deity, He's got His disciples grooving to electric bass, synthesizer, and saxophone at an Old Testament namesake -- Mt. Sinai Baptist Church on Woodland Avenue, a concrete prayer hall brightened with white paint and jewel-tone banners.

"We don't shake hands here, we give hugs" is the church's unofficial motto. The faithful take their scriptural cue from the prophet Jeremiah -- and their showmanship cue from the band Parliament-Funkadelic, famous for having more people onstage than in the audience. Up front, a broad contralto sings, sweats, and cools herself with a handheld electric fan. "I fell asleep at the wheel, and guess who was driving the car," booms an overcome believer, as a horn player belts bright notes. Those too blind or too far back to see the proceedings can watch a simulcast version on a giant screen. A tilted mirror reflects the percussionists' furious hands on the kettle drums and cowbells.

Holding it all together is a man dressed in a pinstriped suit, playing two keyboards at once: 36-year-old Darrin Jennings, the church's music director and an arranger, composer, and freelance funeral pianist. Beaming as he plays, Jennings sometimes elastically leans as far as his torso will let him, to give a singer an encouraging glance or a "Louder, please" gesture. His hands float over the keys like the first breath of creation.

"Gospel music has all types of music in it," Jennings says later. He's played keyboards on tour with Vicky Winans and other gospel luminaries. "Heaven is where music started from. Lucifer was the minister of music in heaven. He was an instrument. He could raise his arm, and if I'm not mistaken, pipes would blow. He had rubies and all kinds of jewels in his body. It's deep. Pastor Matthews can really tell you better than I can."

On a Wednesday last year, C. Jay Matthews said to his wife, "If only we had Darrin, the most gifted church musician in the city." The following Sunday, the Lord provided. Already working at another church, Jennings stopped by Mt. Sinai to ask if his old friend needed a musician. "That's what my ministry's like," says Matthews. "Whenever I need something, God sends it to me. And he sends it to me right away." One time, Matthews asked for help with juvenile offenders, and God assigned him a seat on an airplane beside the director of a juvenile home. Another time, needing a haircut and an anger-management specialist to teach at the church, he met an anger-management specialist at the barbershop. "If you preach wait, your expectation is to wait. If you preach faith, your expectation is to have your needs met."

In 1994, God informed Matthews that his sermons needed more Holy Spirit, less Methuselah, so he added more zing to his preaching. He hoped the choir would hop on that up-tempo train, but "there's been some times when we've had some dry spells. Maybe to some of the people that was doing it, it didn't seem dry." Jennings's exuberant style fit with the newfound fire and brimstone. "What Darrin does," marvels Matthews, "is reach up to God and out to the people and create a connection."

On Sundays, that might mean a homegrown soul number to rouse the pew potatoes from their spiritual comas. For that purpose, Jennings brings out "I Believe," a call-and-response tune he performs with choir member Annie Browning, whose ragged, resplendent voice gives his smooth jazz inflections some down-home cred. In her younger days, 69-year-old Browning used to be a nightclub singer named Black Beauty, dazzling 'em at the Club Oasis on East 72nd and Cedar. But she lost her voice. "Nineteen hundred and fifty-two," she recalls, looking daffodil-like in a bright yellow crocheted beret. "That's when I stepped out of the realm of God and went into the house of blues and rhythm and jazz. And God told me that wasn't where I was supposed to be.

"My grandmother always said, 'When you walk away from God, he will take away the gift he gave you.' So he took it away from me until I realized what I'd done. So I came back to church. And I've been in church ever since."

Jennings also went through a worldly phase. He was raised in an Akron Pentecostal church, where burnt offerings were still an accepted practice. The elders composed their own hymns and "sang so good, it sounded like instruments." At age 17, he "tried to get on the wild side," joining an R&B band. But he was bored. "Church music is harder. You have more going on."

As a preteen, he'd "figured out stuff" on a tabletop organ, bought secondhand. "When I realized I could play, I would be at home hours upon hours. I would learn a whole album in one day. It's awesome how God can put something in you. You don't even know that it's there."

Browning's musical education began in Georgia, where her parents worked as sharecroppers and her grandmother was a midwife and missionary. "I sang when I was a little girl," she says. "I always sang. I sang to the chickens. The pigs. Anyone who'd stand there and act like they was listening. My grandmother used to say, 'The vegetables, the flowers, they hear you. They have feelings and desires just like humans do.'"

Browning calls Jennings "a beautiful person. He's a God-sent person, I believe. I can feel the spirit of him. Even in his fingers -- you can see the music of the Lord dealing with his fingers."

Lucifer should be so lucky. But wasn't God hard up for music after he fired his most melodious angel? "That's what we're for," says Jennings, referring to earthly beings. He pauses thoughtfully. "I'm sure there's somebody in heaven playing to God. The angels are singing up there. I know it. He had to have a backup plan."

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