The congregation is already warmed up as the four-man gospel group takes the floor. Singing, preaching, and up-on-your-feet sharing are expected at Holy Temple Church in Springfield Gardens, N.Y. But the small group gathered here listens with hushed respect as the quartet comes to the fore of the storefront church.
"Nothing can beat the purpose of Almighty God," thunders the group's leader, James Macklin, in a raspy baritone reminiscent of Louis Armstrong. "He took homeless, drug-addicted, used-to-be men - took us out of the subway, took the crack out of our mouths, and taught us to be someone else."
The musicians launch into "This Little Light of Mine," and the church members are on their feet - singing, clapping, and shouting "that's right" to punctuate the message.
Mr. Macklin and each of his compatriots have traveled many miles on the road to this stop. Members of the group Beyond Belief - Macklin, Al White, Eugene Chisholm, and Bob Mack - have fought drug addiction, a life of crime, estrangement from family. Though each has a different story, the theme is the same: redemption - and it's a message that comes through loud and clear in every performance.
Beyond Belief's members are all either graduates or clients at the Bowery Mission in lower Manhattan, a nonprofit Christian organization that helps the poor, the homeless, and the drug-addicted.
Macklin started Beyond Belief four years ago to perform a concert for the homeless in Central Park. Now the group visits some 30 churches a year from West Virginia to Connecticut, and it has performed for audiences as diverse as the governor of South Carolina and prisoners in Alabama.
"In 1987, I was sleeping on the subway," Macklin tells the gathering on this winter evening. He had a career as a blues singer before drugs brought him down. "I had lost everything. My head was on a bag of tin cans when a little old lady came by at 2:30 a.m. and woke me. She asked, 'What's a man like you doing a condition such as this?' The same man that raised Lazarus, she told me, can raise you." He adds: "Look at your brother today!" The congregation cheers.
Audiences everywhere react strongly to the musicians' tales of freedom from the scourge of drugs, deliverance from a lifestyle that destroys family and work, and salvation from the belief that the world is against you and is responsible for your problems.
Mr. White, who works in the chapel at the Bowery Mission, recounts his history.
"I was a high school dropout who spent 29 years in the streets," he says. "I used heroin, cocaine, and was an alcoholic. When I did have a job, I used the money to party and use hard drugs. One day I knew I couldn't face it any more. I had been out all night, and I ran into a group that prayed in a park. I asked them if they could pray for me, that I was lost and had no direction. Right there on the spot I felt clean." He has not used drugs since 1993.
Mr. Chisholm, a good-natured man who does maintenance work at the Mission, says he has "a story-and-a-half." He started using heroin in 1959 and had 18 arrests and 12 convictions during his time of drug abuse.
But he had an "angel" in the form of a neighbor who "hounding me to do something with my life.... I tried to hide from her, but when I moved out of the building and was living under bridges, she still tracked me down."
Beyond Belief has had some turnover, Macklin admits of the group's members. Some have moved on to normal lives; others have returned to the streets. "But there is always an awareness of what it means to come from death to life," he says.
When the group performs - whether for a white congregation in Pennsylvania or today's black audience in a gritty Queens neighborhood - Macklin and his colleagues radiate pure joy.
Bob Mack is the youngest of the group and has the most "modern" story. Born into a middle-class Philadelphia family, he began playing musical instruments at age 3, when his father gave him a guitar for Christmas. Later he formed a group with other kids and performed at parties and church meetings.
When he was 15, he joined a group with older members and began to smoke marijuana and drink. For a while, he had a successful career in the music industry in Los Angeles, working in television while also holding down a daytime sales job for regular income. But in 1981 he began to use cocaine.
He returned to Philadelphia in 1986 to find that his brother and sister were selling drugs. Soon he became further involved, and even stole from his family to finance his addiction. He eventually asked his mother for help, and she called the Bowery Mission. Mr. Mack joined the drug treatment program that day.
'My heart is filled'
Macklin may have the most direct challenge for his varied audiences. This evening, he drops a bombshell on the Queens congregation. Ten years after his last use of drugs, he was told last summer that he is HIV positive. He tells the church that he doesn't accept the verdict.
"The only thing God gave me was another test," he explains. "I know God not only can save a man, he can heal.... Feeling sorry and pity [for the homeless and afflicted] will kill [us] quickly. Don't be afraid of me, or the homeless."
As the performance nears an end, an usher hands out paper fans to the congregation; the room has become warm as many have joined Beyond Belief in belting out gospel tunes. Macklin looks tired but happy as he pumps his arms locomotive style during a rousing rendition of "Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross."
"The battle is to the strong," he says as he bids goodbye. "My heart is filled tonight."