Homeless but not hopeless: Men’s choir lifts voices in praise

If you go:

The Easter Story. The Atlanta Homeward Men’s Choir, the Shrine Music Ministry, soloists and guest orchestra under the director of Donal P. Noonan. 6 p.m. Sunday. Free. The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 48 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr., Atlanta. A love offering will be collected.

Freddie Harden's rich bass carries through the nearly empty sanctuary at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Atlanta.

His eyes light up when he breaks into the spiritual, “Wade in the Water.”

“It’s inspiring,” said Harden 53, who was born in Raleigh County, W. Va., where many residents eked out a living in the coal mines. “I love to sing and I get a sense of love from others when they hear you sing. They’re like, ‘Wow, they’re just like us.’ ”

The “us” in this case are people with homes.

Harden, who looks like he could have once been a college lineman, has been homeless since 2008. He quickly ticks off a list of jobs he’s held or projects he’s working on, including writing a book.

For the next hour or so, though, he is focused on singing. He's part of the Atlanta Homeward Men's Choir, housed at the church and comprised of roughly eight or nine members, all of whom generally spend their nights in shelters.

Sunday, the choir will sing in an Easter concert at the church.

On this day, they are joined by 21 students from Stanford University in a last minute jam session. The Stanford Talisman, an a Capella group which had its beginning in 1990 singing music from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, was touring several cities during spring break and found out about the Homeward Choir from an internet search for groups to collaborate with in Atlanta.

They performed for each other. They performed together. They bonded over a shared love of music.

Their voices blended seamlessly, as if they’d performed together for months not minutes.

“Hopefully, we can bring something to the Homeward choir by sharing our music,” said Miki Lainovic, a sophomore and the group’s manager. The group’s mission is based on sharing stories through music, particularly from the African diaspora, she said.

Donal Noonan, a native of Kilcock, Ireland and former Catholic school teacher, came up with the idea for the Homeward choir two years ago. He noticed men hanging around the shelter or sitting on the walls around the church.

“It looked like they were waiting for something, a bus or someone to pick them up,” he said. They looked bored.

He thought music might be a way to engage them.

“I’m a musician and my mother always said if God gives you a talent, you’d better use it or answer for it.” He approached some of the men with the idea and “it literally caught on fire.” He has been blown away by some of the talent, but not everyone interested in joining the choir has been an Andraé Crouch in training.

Noonan’s message was simple: “If you want to praise God, come on in and praise God,” he said. “I’ll make you sound good. I can make you sound ‘purty.’ ”

At the first rehearsal there were 29 guys. The number fluctuates as people find jobs or move to other shelters or cities.

There were other challenges as well. The group was initially called the Atlanta Homeless Men’s Choir. One day Noonan, the choir’s music director and head of the music ministry at the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, noticed a man look at one of the posters and flinch. He realized some men may not feel comfortable with the name. “Gradually, we had a conversation on this,” Noonan said. “The men said this is where we are right now, it’s now where we will be six months from now, a year from now and definitely not 10 years from now.”

He also noticed that while a lot of men attended the rehearsals, as it got closer to concert time, many would disappear. He realized that many were living on the streets in secret, unbeknownst to their families and friends.

“There’s a lot of isolation attached to that lifestyle,” he said. “It kind of breaks your heart, especially if you have a community yourself. I could hear my mother’s heart break if she knew I was sleeping outside.”

It hit him that music might also be a way to give a face to homelessness in Atlanta.

People walk past the homeless and they’re afraid of them or ignore them.

They would not be able to ignore their beautiful voices.

He has seen a change in the choir members. They smile more. They talk to each other. They have more confidence. They have built a community. “We want to make this a safe place where there is no judgment.”

Members have included an unemployed travel agent, a former realtor, an ex-radio disc jockey, a nurse and former military members. They have ended up on the streets because of family squabbles, mental illness, substance abuse or job loss.

There are people like Tyran Austin.

“You almost brought tears to my eyes,” said Austin, 54, as he watched the Talisman perform “Amazing Grace.” Austin, a native of Pittsburgh, has been a member of the Homeward Choir for two years and loves to sing. “I could strike up a song right now,” he said.

Austin became homeless when he lost his job. He plays saxophone and clarinet and comes from a family of good singers.

Music keeps his spirits up and is a way for him to do something positive, he said. But it doesn’t necessarily take his mind off his circumstances.

“After these people leave today, I’m still going to go downstairs to the shelter.”

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