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Christian Science Goes Country Western

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The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Rocky River, Ohio, threw open its doors recently to Cherie Brennan, the Florida-based Christian Inspirational songwriter and singer, for a concert previewing her new CD release ‘He Loves You a Lot’.

Seated behind a Yamaha electric keyboard, in front of the church’s Schantz pipe organ, the blonde, soulful singer, with more than a hatful of country-western twang in her voice, wove a tapestry of stories and songs together in a 90-minute show that kept her audience both delighted and enthralled.

“It took me three years to complete this CD (her second) and there were many challenges and seeming obstacles in my path, but God sustained me at every turn,” she said.

“I have been incredibly blessed. I give credit to God, who, as always, has given me the music, lyrics, and the inspiration for singing, playing, and writing.”

Christian Science is known more for hymns than the Billboard Top 10. Some of the church’s music is arrangements of poems by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the new religious movement in the last half of the nineteenth century.

But, Christian Scientists from Doris Day to Lionel Hampton to Bruce Hornsby have put their faith and philosophy into the popular music of their times.

Beginning the night with ‘You Lift Me Up’, a song about waking up to clouds of gray, but then being lifted to the light, Ms. Brennan’s strong emotive voice filled the nave of the high-ceilinged auditorium.

Reprising most of the songs on her just-released CD, Ms. Brennan ended the night, appropriately enough as dusk darkened the church’s wall-to-wall windows, with ‘You Be the Light’. As with all her songs, the words and music were uniquely her own.

“You be the light, be the one, God is calling on today. You be the light, be the one, God is calling out your name,” she sang.

After the concert the line between performer and audience blurred as Ms. Brennan joined most of the crowd in the church’s Sunday school for mingling, refreshments, and autographing CD’s.

“We were very pleased to be able to host a concert by Cherie Brennan, who came all the way from Jacksonville, Florida,” said Richard Warsinskey, a Social Security administrator and President of the Board of Trustees of the church.

“Cherrie’s music is very uplifting and you could definitely feel this during the concert. Her music makes you feel God’s love,” he added.

Before emerging on the Christian Inspirational scene Cherie Brennan sang with pop bands in Boston and New York, living and working in Los Angeles for more than six years.

“I made a living as a singer in a number of bands, all good, never famous,” she said.

“I sang back-up for several famous people, but never found fame myself. I wrote a lot of songs, some of them good, but no hits. I was trying to make it as a singer and songwriter, but it just wasn’t happening.”

By the mid-1990s she was married and soon after became a new mother, while her husband, Jack, acquired a plastics manufacturing company in Cleveland, where they shortly moved.

“When I came to live here,” she said, “I decided I wasn’t going to write or play or sing. I had a young son and I thought that was all I needed to do, which was take care of my little boy.”

She devoted herself to being a wife and mother, establishing her new home in Cleveland, and investing in church-related duties and activities at the First Church, in Rocky River, on Cleveland’s west side.

But, just when she had seemingly walked away from singing and writing, a life challenge brought her back. She turned to her beliefs.

“I turned to God for spiritual healing,“ she explained.

Although Christian Scientists respect the interests and work of medical professionals and don’t oppose them, many Christian Scientists pray first about their challenges, including health issues, and find it effective.

“Sometimes I had to pray for what seemed a really long time for the healing to come. But my efforts to know God better as ever-present love were met with success, and many of the healing solutions came to me in the form of songs.”

She had never considered recording after being away from singing and playing for more than ten years, but felt compelled to start writing music again.

“The music and lyrics just poured out of me,” she said.

“The words came from God, and I just wrote them down, and from that time I have just wanted to write music all the time, just for Him.”

Ms. Brennan’s first CD was ‘You Are Loved’, which became the the rebirth of her singing and songwriting career, and was released in 2007.

“It had become increasingly important to me to share this music with others in the hope that the message of God’s great love for us would bring the same kind of healing to others as it had to me.”

The recording featured a stirring rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, with an integrated spiritual interpretation by Mary Baker Eddy.

Her new CD showcases the veteran gospel and country band pedal steel guitarist John Le Master, and as well as the lead guitarist Daryl Phenneger, who tours with Al Green, the Godfather of Soul.

“The direction of my music has changed a little bit,” Cherie Brennan said, “from inspirational pop to more of a country feel.”

‘You Be the Light’ is being released as a single to more than a thousand inspirational country radio stations. It is being promoted with a full-page ad in Power Source, the influential Nashville magazine started by the founders of Christian Country music.

The following month Cherie Brennan will be appearing in Nashville at the Inspirational Country Music Awards. Past winners include Johnny Cash, Ricky Skaggs, and Carrie Underwood. She will be highlighting two songs from her new CD, as well as participating in seminars and instructional classes.

“I am kind of excited about that,” she said.

“I have many influences on my music,” she added, “but even though I do, I try not to sound or write like anybody else. Up to the point of my first recording, I had only sung on other artists’ CDs. Now when I write I don’t listen to anybody’s music.”

“I am always seeking fresh inspiration for new songs from thinking about God in new and different ways, and having fun doing it. I know in my heart that all my songs come from God.”

With the divine as her muse, Cherie Brennan doesn’t suffer from writer’s block or a lack of inspiration, as her audience was witness to at the end of the concert. They gave her show a big round of applause, for her songs, which were both poignant and intimate, going straight to the heart and soul.

Postscript:

In April 2014 Cherie Brennan performed at the Midwest Church Alive Summit, a yearly conference for member-to-member sharing of Christian Science benefits and experiences. In July she showcased at the BB King Theater in Nashville in support of her new single ‘911’, which quickly climbed up the Inspirational Country Music Chart.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

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Minister of Music

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On any Wednesday evening for the past two decades-and-more whenever anyone looked toward the musician’s pit to the right of the reader’s platform at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River they would have seen, as they still see today, the back of the pony-tailed head of Lavert Stuart.

What they wouldn’t have seen is that serendipity always rewards the prepared. Mr. Stuart has had his fingers on a keyboard from the time he could stand up in a crib. He was ready for the Schantz organ at the Rocky River church

“The substitute for Berdie d’Aliberti, the regular organist at the church, couldn’t make it one night, so I filled in,” said Lavert Stuart. “Then when Berdie’s teaching duties at Baldwin Wallace University got so she could only play on Sundays I became the Wednesday organist, and now we’re looking at more than 25 years.”

What Mr. Stuart didn’t say was that he has been a church musician for almost 50 years, since he started at Cleveland’s Mount Zion Congregational Church in 1965. In the years since he has performed as a pianist and organist at many Protestant churches, from the Historic First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, to the Cathedral de St. Trinity in Port au Prince, Haiti.

Although not a member of the Rocky River church he says he is a Christian Scientist “by osmosis”.

The son of a Cleveland policeman, who was cousin to Carl and Louis Stokes, noted Ohio politicians, and a librarian who went on to become the first black insurance saleswoman in Ohio, Mr. Stuart started small.

“When I was a baby my mother kept my playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. It was so she would know where I was. As long as she heard me picking out notes she knew I wasn’t getting into anything else.”

Mr. Stuart grew up in the Glenville neighborhood at a time when it was known as the Gold Coast, crowded with immigrants, delis, clubs, department stores, and churches. He attended Empire Junior High and John Adams High School.

The first in his family to pursue a higher education, he won a scholarship to Ohio University, where he majored in organ. After graduation he moved to Chicago, working for the Board of Education, and playing at several churches, including Salem Lutheran, founded in 1868 by Swedish immigrants. While there he studied with Edward Mondello, the University Organist at the University of Chicago.

“He was a wonderful teacher. I got a lot of the romantic 19th century style from him, playing in the Rockefeller Chapel.”

After being recommended for the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, he studied there for two years. He was the musical director at the First Congregational Church in Weston and later played his graduation recital at the historic Old West Church, where the phrase “no taxation without representation” was first coined.

While living in Boston he helped coordinate the creation of the 1.6 mile Black Heritage Trail, which winds through the Beacon Hill neighborhood and ends at the African Meeting House, the oldest surviving black church in America.

“The first person to die in the American Revolution was a black man,” Mr. Stuart points out. “It was a terrible time.”

Even in 1976, during the Bicentennial celebrations in Boston, when a man at an anti-busing rally tried to kill an African-American bystander with the pointed pole end of an American flag, captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.

“I was only a few steps away from that incident when it happened.”

Thirty-five years later Boston City Council cited Lavert Stuart with a proclamation honoring his “spiritual leadership through music ministry and commitment to developing interest and knowledge in Black heritage and culture.”

Having finished his studies he returned to live in Cleveland.

“It was my experience with institutions, and the sense of history in Boston, which made me interested in the organizations and history that brought me to where I was, and who I was.”

He returned to Mt. Zion Church, serving as their organist and choirmaster for the next ten years, as well as serving as supply organist for several other churches and chapels. He began a 25-year relationship with the Stuphen School of Music, serving as their musical director. The school experienced a renaissance under his leadership.

In 1996 he began his long association with Antioch Baptist Church as their organist for the Sanctuary and Gospel Choirs.

“His ministry of music has been a blessing to me,” said the Reverend Marvin McMickle of the Antioch Church. ”Lavert Stuart has been our local version of the Music Man.”

Mr. Stuart is a long-time supporter of the Antioch Development Corporation, whose mission it is to develop personal and collective self-sufficiency within individuals, families, and organizations throughout impoverished neighborhoods of Greater Cleveland.

“Sometimes you don’t realize the things people have to go through.”

As well as a career in classical, sacred music, Mr. Stuart has had a secular career in jazz and popular music. He got his start at the New England Conservatory under the aegis of Gunther Schuller, a composer, conductor, and performer who was then the president of the music school.

“He really put jazz on the map there,” said Lavert Stuart.

In 1973 Gunther Schuller won a Grammy Award with his Ragtime Ensemble.

In the late 1980s Mr. Stuart was the pianist at the Sweet Water Café in downtown Cleveland, and for more than ten years played three nights a week at Mantell’s in the Radisson in Willoughby.

“They had a grand piano on a platform in the shape of a grand piano.”

As well as playing jazz standards at clubs and restaurants, he has worked as a conductor-pianist for theater productions at both Karamu and the Ensemble Theater. He toured with Karamu when its production of ‘Langston’ performed at Lincoln Center in New York City.

He was the featured pianist in Philip Hayes Dean’s biographical play ‘Paul Robeson’.

“I always wanted to do something on a cruise ship, too,” he said, laughing. “Maybe in a next life I’ll be able to do that.”

As if his plate weren’t full enough, Mr. Stuart volunteers at the McGregor Home, a senior living facility near University Circle, playing the piano in their dining hall.

“One of my last adopted mothers is there,” he said. “She was my car mom when I was a boy, driving me home from church. I sit at the piano, start picking up the vibe, and play for her and her friends. It adds some quality to their lives, which is important, because it’s the little things that count.”

The Reverend Marvin McMickle remembers Mr. Stuart doing the same for his mother. “He would take a keyboard into my mother’s room and play the hymns of the church as she lay in her bed in a nursing home. I believe she is looking on from glory today and sharing in his musical celebration.”

Every Wednesday Lavert Stuart plays a prelude, accompanies three hymns, and finishes with a postlude at the Testimony Meeting at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River. Those who stay for the postlude are sometimes treated to his signature piece, the Carillon de Westminster, written for the organ by the French composer Louis Vierne as an embellishment on the chimes played from the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster.

After nearly two-and-a-half score years the minister of music continues to play organs with consummate skill and enthusiasm.

“It all started when I was a teenager and heard it at Mt. Zion. I would go to the library and get records. I loved to hear that sound,” he said.

For many centuries the organ has been known as ‘the king of instruments’.

“There’s something about the sound of the organ. It’s a light unto itself.”

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate. 

cropped-349660c0479d61fd4376b3e0dc1f14871.jpg

Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.