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West Louisville church rejoices greatly in classical Christmas music tradition

This photo shows a woman holding her hands out to the side of her excitedly. She's wearing a red and black sweater and is surrounded by four other people in church pews, smiling.
J. Tyler Franklin
Ernestine Adams, longtime member of Zion Baptist Church in Louisville's West End, talks about how much she missed the yearly performance of Handel's "Messiah" over the past several years, and how thrilled she is that it is returning. In front of her is Joseph Greer, Administrative Assistant at Zion, who has led the way in reviving the Messiah performances after the COVID-19 pandemic closures.

For many, the sounds of G.F. Handel’s masterwork “Messiah” signal the arrival of the holiday season. In west Louisville, Zion Baptist Church hosts one of the city’s longest-running Messiah performances. The music plays a major role at the church and in the broader community.

Ushers decked all in red escorted guests to their seats for a nearly packed sanctuary at Zion Baptist Church. The orchestra tuned. Singers whispered excitedly.

This year, Zion celebrated the 69th singing of Handel’s “Messiah.”

“Reverend D. E. King was the pastor of our church at that time, and he was one that was very instrumental in initiating this and combining it with the very musicians and the artists that have become so prevalent in carrying this on,” said Deacon Tyrone King.

King’s been a member of Zion for more than 70 years.

A close up shot of a person looking at a musical performance program. Blurred church pews are visible.
J. Tyler Franklin
Audience members look over their programs in anticipation of the concert.

The pastors who led the church in the decades after the “Messiah” performance became tradition recognized its importance in the community. Rev. A.D. Williams King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s brother, made sure to continue the legacy of classical music during his tenure at Zion Baptist in the 1960s. And when Pastor Emeritus Rev. H. D. Cockerham arrived, he knew the church had something special. His role, he said, was to continue the tradition.

“My thanks to God for [the tradition] being here,” Cockerham said. “Because it meant so very much to this church and the community. To have it here on the West End, and for people to come in from other denominations having heard about it and come right in here and join in with us just as though they were part of us.”

Handel’s “Messiah” is a fulfilling spiritual experience for members of the church, but also plays a crucial role in serving Zion’s West End community. Pastor Gerald Joiner said the “Messiah” performances align with the church’s mission.

“We, here at Zion, believe in Matthew 25:35. We welcome strangers into our midst,” Joiner explained. “I saw the ‘Messiah’ as being a continuation of ministering to this community, not just to the members of the church – ministering to all of the members of this community by providing them a high end cultural experience.”

The performance has also fostered interest in classical music within families of Zion Baptist.

An upright bass player is pictured in focus in front of a choir.
J. Tyler Franklin
Bass player Bennett Norris tunes with the orchestra, while the choir gathers behind him.

“Pastor Cockerham challenged us young people that was in the youth choir back in the early 70s,” said Deacon Kevin Martin. “Because we did progressive gospel music, and he said come listen to this this evening and see how it affects you.”

Marissa Horton went to Zion’s “Messiah” with her grandmother, who brought her mother, who brought her and her sister.

“It's a tradition,” Horton said. “And now that [our mother and grandmother] are both gone, we feel like we have to come now. It's just something in us that compels us to come every year in honor of our grandmother and my mother.”

Like most communities across the world, Zion Baptist felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. They made the hard decision to cancel performances.

“It was hurtful when COVID did hit because we, by us not coming here, it was a painful experience not being able to have it,” Cockerham said.

But on Sunday, Dec. 10th, for the first time in three years, there was no question that the music was alive and well in Zion Baptist Church.

Breya Jones contributed to this story.

Editor's note: Laura Atkinson, the reporter on this story, was also a performer in this year's "Messiah" at Zion Baptist Church.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Marissa Horton's name.

Laura is the evening host for LPM Classical. Email Laura at latkinson@lpm.org.

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