A universal love of music and service to others is at the heart of the West Coast Mennonite Men’s Chorus, the 150-plus group of singers and instrumentalists who return to Bakersfield this Sunday to do good, and to make good — music, that is.
The chorus, which is made up of singers from Mennonite and affiliate churches throughout the valley, will perform at Laurelglen Bible Church. Directed by Randy Janzen, the chorus will perform a program of gospel music, praise songs, hymns and other sacred music.
“It’s just great harmony that is accompanied by a great orchestra,” said choir spokesman Gary Lott.
This choir has been performing for 42 years — Lott says many of the singers are founding members — and the concerts have become an annual event for Bakersfield. The purpose of the concert is share music and to collect donations to go to charitable causes. The choir has raised over $550,000 over the decades.
Lott said until last year, the concert proceeds went to the Mennonite Central Committee for global outreach activities.
“They meet a lot of needs,” Lott said. “People who don’t have water; people who need extra food. Plus missionary work.”
Lott said the choir’s focus has become local — California — in the aftermath of devastating fires followed by devastating floods.
“The money goes through the Mennonite Disaster Service,” Lott said. “They build houses and help people recover.”
Choral singing is an integral part of worship practice in the Mennonite Brethren Church and its affiliates.
Founded in the 16th century by German religious leader Menno Simons, the Mennonite Church embraced Anabaptism, which allowed baptism only for repentant believers, instead of the then-standard practice of infant baptism. That doctrine, along with such beliefs that the Eucharist was a memorial only, rather than the actual presence of Jesus Christ, would eventually lead to persecution and ultimately, immigration to what would become the United States.
Historically, religious services have been centered on choral singing, creating a tradition that has influenced American music.
But Lott said in some ways, the choir is preserving a “dying art.”
“In a lot of different places, churches are doing away with the hymnal,” Lott said. “(The hymnal) is how I learned to read music: in the hymnal, which isn’t in the pews anymore.”
Lott said many churches are replacing choirs with praise bands — a music he enjoys — as a way of reaching younger church-goers.
Lott said a secondary mission for the choir is to share that music tradition and inspire others to keep it alive.
“They just love the four-part harmonies and there’s a lot of beautiful stuff being written out there,” Lott said.