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Inner Light Community Gospel Choir Makes a Joyful Noise

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For nearly 30 years, dedicated singers have raised their voices in unison and unity.

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It’s a late Monday evening and for most of the denizens of the Shirrell Way neighborhood, tucked behind the Fairview Shopping Center in Goleta, it’s time to head in for the night.

But for a couple dozen folks sitting in a small room at First Presbyterian Church, the day’s not over. Putting aside the Monday hubbub of work, traffic, errands and school, these people, known collectively as the Inner Light Community Gospel Choir, are busy lifting their voices in the triumphant cadences of black gospel music.

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"It’s so joyful," said Diane Kirkpatrick, vice president and longtime member of the choir. “It’s from the heart and not the head."

Others in the group agree. For them, it’s what got them there in the first place.

“I saw that there was so much great energy,” said John Zwerver, a member who joined only a few weeks ago after seeing one of the choir’s performances. “It was magical.”

Bob Swinney, another member, remembered when he heard the choir for the first time in 1995, in a Fourth of July parade. He followed the group on his bike from State Street to Milpas Street, near where he lived, he said. And he’s been following them ever since.

The choir started in 1980, when Pearl “Mama Pat” Patrick, an ardent and much-admired gospel singer, began a small choir of six singers and a guitar player. The choir grew, moved and gained more experience, traveling across the country and out to Europe. Mama Pat continued to enhance the community, inspiring her group to do the same.

Mama Pat died almost four years ago, but the Inner Light choir continues to be the community-minded group it always was. It’s interfaith, interracial and self-supporting.

For some, singing with the choir is part of their worship, although the group does not belong to any church. Others appreciate the unique American-ness of a music that goes back to a time when black slaves fought for their freedom against immense odds. It’s the messages in the music that lifts them, they said.

Yet others just like to belt one out. And, according to the choir’s leader, the Rev. Peter Hernandez, that’s just fine.

“This is a community choir,” Hernandez said. “All you have to do is like gospel music and want to sing.”

Hernandez learned from Mama Pat herself and has been the group’s musical director since 2001. No one in the room is busier than him. His job is to keep the singers in top shape for their performances, a job that requires a lot of energy and the talent of local musician John Douglas on the piano. Together they bring out the richness of sound from the singers. It’s not a small feat given the lateness of the hour.

"This music’s about hope and love and fellowship and oneness," Hernandez said.

Who would miss out on something like that?

Somehow, despite the late evening, the choir finishes up with good energy. In fact a few members, like Diane Kirkpatrick, might even walk away with more energy than they had going in, and something to face the rest of the week with.

“This is something I need to do," she said. "This feeds me."

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