Diverse Utah choir uses gospel music to make the world a better place
For several years now, the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir has been looking forward to performing at BYU’s annual community event celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The crowd at the Ernest L. Wilkinson Student Center was smaller this year, likely due to COVID-19, but they still responded energetically to the Christian gospel music by standing and applauding the diverse choir as they performed five numbers.
“We had a small group, but they were strong,” Bonner said. “So I think we’ve done our job.”
One song the choir always sings at the event is Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” because it’s so fitting, Bonner said.
“If we want to change the world, we have to look at ourselves and make a change,” she said. “Sometimes we see people in pain and we pretend not to see them. It is not a good thing. People are hurting, struggling and we need to be ready to reach out.
The song’s message also describes the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir – a large group of artists from different religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as well as political affiliations, who come together to sing Christian gospel music. and make the world a better place. They strive to be a source of love and healing in the communities where they sing, and in doing so, their lives are enriched.
“We love each other and we get along,” Bonner said. “We are sisters and brothers.”
Bonner discovered gospel music at age 13 while singing in a Baptist gospel choir in Flint, Michigan. She went on to earn her master’s degree in vocal performance from the University of Michigan and said she was mentored by two of the best voice teachers in the world – Richard Miller and Seth Riggs, who taught greats like Michael Jackson and Stevie. Wonderful.
After serving a Baptist mission in Liberia, Africa, Bonner and her husband moved to Las Vegas where they converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They raised a family of eight musical children and eventually moved to Provo where Bonner opened his own vocal studio.
Amid Black History Month in February, 69-year-old Bonner spoke with the Deseret News about her musical journey, her talented family, how she became the founder/director of the Unity Gospel Choir. and its mission, and other matters.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Desert News: Between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month in February, what thoughts come to mind at this time of year?
Debra Bonner: It’s like Christmas. If we can just remember to love our fellow man, just love our brothers and those who struggle and suffer, that we carry each other’s burdens and be there for each other, that’s what what i think.
Don’t just remember Black History Month. Do not just remember the death of Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his life for his neighbour. If we could try to be like the Savior, to love our brothers, to love one another, and to forgive one another, that is really what we need to remember. I think if people really knew the pain we cause our brothers and sisters, if they really knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t be doing it. We just need to forgive them and love them.
DN: How did you discover your love of gospel music?
comics: There was a girl who was 13 at the time and I was 12. I just looked up to her because she was so nice and good. I wanted to be her friend. She took me to her house, which was a church, on a Sunday. That’s how I got to know Jesus by going to church, listening to gospel music and singing the hymns. It was through music that I gained a testimony of the Savior. The music was so personal, one-on-one. The sermons were great, but it was the music that penetrated those truths into my heart.
After joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nothing changed. I still knew the Savior.
DN: How was the Unity Gospel Choir born?
comics: Eight years ago, I was called to direct the choir of the Genesis Group Choir (a choir of the congregation of Latter-day Saints). I grew up leading gospel choirs and I knew the music. There were on average 50 to 75 people every first Sunday.
When we started singing today’s gospel, it took off. We had between 300 and 400 people. We began to receive requests to perform elsewhere, in other parishes, churches, and Latter-day Saint businesses. We have become very popular. We played four to six times a month at different locations.
Church leaders said they liked what we were doing. They didn’t want us to stop this. They said we would be able to go where the church couldn’t go. But there was no choir like ours in the manual. This choir was supposed to be like a parish choir. They decided to release us so that we could continue doing what we were doing and gave us a small donation to allow us to continue a little.
We still continue to sing at Genesis meetings every first Sunday.
DN: Are you happy with how things went?
comics: I’m, I’m very happy, except it’s difficult because I basically sponsor the choir and it costs at least $8,000 a month to run the choir. It’s partly because we’ve hired a great gospel pianist, Matthew Banks, who we travel with every week.
But our community needs him. There is nothing like him here. People feel the spirit when they hear our choir and hear it play. So we’re gonna keep doing it until I can’t do it anymore. We have faith that if it is the will of the Lord, we will continue to grow and lives will continue to be changed.
DN: Why do people like to sing in your choir?
comics: Their lives have changed. They are more spiritual. We’ve had people in the choir who have had addictions who no longer have addictions. We’ve had people come into the choir with depression who don’t have depression anymore. The music itself lends itself to healing because it speaks of the Savior Jesus Christ. It’s all about the Savior and who he personally is to us, why we love him, and what he has done for us. This is gospel music.
So if you don’t have a real personal relationship with the Savior and you start singing about it, you start having a relationship, and then it starts to get real. It changes people.
DN: Last October, your choir performed at Genesis Group 50th Anniversary. What do you remember the most from this experience?
comics: How the music touched the public. People were clapping, they gave us a standing ovation, they just jumped out of their seats at the end of certain songs and clapped. This music resonates with the members of this church.
DN: You are the mother of a family of talented artists and performers. What does it mean to you to see them displaying the same passion for music and the arts as you do?
comics: I am grateful. I have great gratitude to my Heavenly Father and my Savior Jesus Christ who gave me the gift. They gave me a way to develop my gift and so I was able to train my children from an early age. I feel like I’ve been given so much and I’m grateful that my kids feel the same as I do in terms of music, in terms of sharing the gospel through music about the Savior. We also have a grandchild, and we’re talking about a number of other grown-up grandchildren who may join us.
Deseret Book asked us to write our stories, so we are writing a book about the Bonner family. We can see how the Lord has moved in our lives.
When I look at my life and the lives of my children in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and compared to my brothers and sisters and my cousins, who love the Lord, what a big difference. The church and the gospel of Jesus Christ have made a difference in the Bonner family.
DN: Things are a bit slow for you right now during the pandemic, but what is your vision for Unity Gospel Choir going forward?
comics: We want to build Unity Gospel choirs all over Utah and around the world. We are a diverse, multicultural and multifaith group. We have a Jewish person and a Muslim in the choir. As long as you’re ready to sing about the Savior, you’re welcome. We do not discriminate. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends gender and race. It’s about the spirit of the Lord and what it stands for, and what that means is that we love each other.
If there are people who really want to be part of our choral family, we welcome you.
To learn more about the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir, email her at email@example.com or visit the website, dbunitygospelchoir.org.