Everlasting Music


On most Monday nights, the Christian band Wings of Mercy can be found rehearsing in the basement of Mercy Outreach Fellowship in Blackstone, Virginia. Under fluorescent lighting, with a crooked black and white portrait of Jesus in the background, after a lot of mike checks — “testing . . . testing . . . testing . . .” — Rev. Paul Ashman opens with a prayer: “Father, we thank you. Lord, we can all come together and share our talents in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

The idea that musicians could consider themselves missionaries came to life about a year ago when Kenneth Moorefield and Rev. Ashman, a lay minister, became good friends as they discussed the problems of the world. They talked about “how the church had lost its way,” Rev. Ashman said. Mr. Moorefield had enjoyed gospel music in a former church he attended, and he’d heard of pop-up entertainers in parking lots. Then, they met musicians and songwriters Mike Godwin and Donna Stokes; the ideas just mushroomed. When Mercy Outreach offered rehearsal space, Mr. Moorefield announced, “We’ve done talked enough.”

After bandying about titles like Angels of Mercy and Angels of Glory, Wings of Mercy was born.

“Our mission,” said band leader Donna Stokes, “is to spread the word of salvation to actually see people be saved by agreeing they are sinners, by repenting, and by accepting Jesus as the Son of God. By accepting Him, we find our way to salvation.”

Mrs. Stokes is 77 years old. She looks 15 years younger and is plain speaking. “Music does that to you,” she laughed. She captains a tight ship; the band is growing in popularity and reputation. They have been performing in churches, hunt clubs, even in Central State Hospital in Petersburg where they played for staff and patients. The cost of their concerts? Free.

“Wings of Mercy” now has 15 to 20 members, including musicians. They read recitations and prayers, and two soloists. Since “Wings” has so many people, they can easily cover absences, whether from ill health or family and work issues. More musicians are hearing about their success, and approaching them about auditioning. I attended a church cookout yesterday hosted by Mercy Outreach, where I belong, and a man I met is a longtime player; he plans to go to the band’s rehearsal tonight to find out if there is a place for him.

The songs performed are gospel, country, bluegrass, and the occasional rock and roll, as long as there is a Christian theme of some sort. The level of musicianship is astonishing, with the playing of guitars, drums, keyboard, harmonica, mandolin and the occasional saxophone.

In August, I attended an ice cream social where the band performed at Grace United Methodist Church in Dinwiddie County. I was surprised at the attendance — about 90 people of all ages — and the event was one of God, country and fellowship: Themes people desperately need these days. There was awe-inspiring, foot-tapping music, funny self-deprecating teasing between band members, and prayer — an afternoon of longtime American traditions that are so pilloried these days.

If you talk at length to Mrs. Stokes, you understand how she was able to pull the band together and take it to another level, not only with energy and smarts, but also a considerable musical background. She plays ukulele, guitar, and keyboard, and she sings. She has a considerable career: High school bands; singing in bars; roles in community theater; performing with various groups, even to the point where some of her copyrighted songs were eventually played on television shows like “Criminal Minds” and “Preacher.” The charm of interviewing a musician like Mrs. Stokes is that during our conversation she broke into song a few times, which hasn’t happened to me during all my years of writing articles.

Mrs. Stokes faith walk is important, and the music is the bridge to glory, redemption, and everlasting peace. Like me, she was raised Episcopalian and, like me, she has left her former church — it has just gotten too political for our tastes and needs. She calls herself “a baby Christian.”

“I read my Bible now and learn faith by exercising faith. If you talk love and read faith, you will be a better Christian by practicing. You will grow faith if you exercise faith. Exercise your faith Muscle.””I read my Bible now and learn faith by exercising faith. If you talk love and read faith, you will be a better Christian by practicing. You will grow faith if you exercise faith. Exercise your faith Muscle.”

She also pointed out this is not about shoving God down people’s throats. In a gesture of love, outreach, and fellowship, Mrs. Stokes and her band want to “try and bring people into the fold. We are opening their eyes to opportunity.”

As Mr. Moorefield explained:

“This is not entertainment. This is mission work. It’s not about us. It’s about you. It is about Jesus Christ and what he has called us to do as missionaries: to play and pull people together.”

Rev. Ashman added, that they want people to “use their talent for the Lord,” which is why they encourage recitations, testimonials, and altar calls. The night I attended a rehearsal, Tommy Morris read “The Ragged Old Flag” while the band played. He said, “On second thought, I do like to brag, ’cause I’m mighty proud of that ragged old flag . . .”

At one concert a few months ago, two teenagers sitting behind me had decided they wanted to accept Jesus and went up front to be blessed and begin their journey. You cannot help but be deeply moved by such moments, no matter how religious you are.

My, husband, Granville, has been singing with the band for six months — I have heard him perform everything from “Ain’t No Grave” to “Do Lord, Remember Me.” He observed, “Wings is a fantastic group to work with, very hardworking and upbeat.” The biggest change for him, as an actor and director, is the difference between rehearsals for bands and rehearsal for plays. Granville said:

“Music is 10 percent improv. In the theater you have a script, and everyone is oriented towards that. In music, it’s a different show every time we perform, which is a lot harder for me. Musicians are used to this. It’s what they do.”

The songs, mission, and fellowship have had an impact on the musicians in some way. Melanie Staylor, the other soloist in the group, might have been an opera singer in life, if fate hadn’t changed her course, as so often is the case. Mrs. Staylor has a clear strong voice that commands the room when she sings; for the most part, she is self-trained. However, for her, too, this is the Lord’s work.

“When I sing, it’s not just me on stage in front of a church. Now, I am a part of something. It’s almost as if it’s all the Lord,” she said, suggesting He has given her a lot of confidence in her ability and, she said, “If I can touch souls, that’s what I’m here for.”

Mrs. Staylor and some of the other band members are currently working on a CD.
We are a small group of believers, building a beautiful community, song by song, prayer by prayer.

Do Lord, do Lord, do remember me,
Do Lord, do Lord, do remember me . . .

This story can also be found in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of the St. Croix Review. Tyler Scott has been publishing her stories and essays since the early 1980s. She now lives in a small town in Southside Virginia.


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