From ancient pagan chant and tribal drumming to polyphonic motets and rock ‘n roll, every religion has inspired music. Two performers appearing in South Florida this month have chosen distinctive musical genres to share their own faith journeys.
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell sums up his faith simply: “I’m African-American by birth, but I’m Jewish by choice.”
The operatic singer from Northern California is also gay, but unlike many gays and lesbians of faith, he has always been able to reconcile the teachings of the church with his own journey.
“From a very young age, I was a very religious child, but I also knew I was gay. In my own religious reality, it was never an issue reconciling these two parts of myself. The grass is green, the sky is blue and I’m gay… And I believed in God,” he explained.
Today, Russell professes his faith through the songs of Sidor Belarsky (1898- 1975), one of the 20th century’s most celebrated and prolific performers of cantorial music, Chassidic nigunim and Yiddish art song.
Russell was first introduced to Judaic music by his partner, a rabbi.
“He was running a high holiday service for an organization that he was working for at the time and the cantor got sick the night before. I spent the whole night learning the music (which was sung in Hebrew),” Russell recalled of the experience.
At another service held under a tent before 1200 people, Russell was again called upon to sing. When he finished, the group was completely silent. Russell feared he’d “done the worst job possible” until he began to hear sobs from the back corner. The response he received encouraged him to seek out other Jewish music.
“That was liturgical music,” he said. He soon discovered the rich musical tradition of Belarsky and other Yiddish composers, music that told the heartfelt stories of a people of faith and spoke to him.
Russell will sing the music that has become an integral part of his own identity in Miami on Sunday, June 9 at 4 p.m. at Temple Israel of Greater Miami, 137 NE 19th St.
There isn’t any gay content in the music he sings, but Russell notes “cultural projection is in itself both a very gay act and a very Jewish act.”
For gay people of faith who still struggle, he offers words of support.
“I can’t say how important it is for gay people to include themselves in spaces that have excluded them,” he advised. “The issues of being spiritual and homosexual can only be addressed if homosexuals include themselves in the conversation. Engagement is key.”
For contemporary Christian singer and songwriter Marsha Stevens-Pino, music was always about communicating her personal faith journey—“my life and my story, growing up fundamentalist and then coming out and how that affected me.”
One of the earliest influences was her grandfather, who regularly recited poetry to Marsha and impressed on her the power of verse.
As a young person in the late ‘60s, music provided a means to share her faith with friends she described as “hippies.”
“I was amazed at how you can say such profound things using poetry, but when I became a Christian and tried to talk to my friends about it, it was completely impossible. I sounded like the Southern Baptist kid down the street, but if I wrote a song, my friends would think it was cool,” she recalled.
Stevens-Pino is credited by The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music as the pioneer of that genre, years before Sandi Patti and Michael W. Smith burst onto the scene.
“And I was the first one to come out,” she added.
Since coming out, Stevens-Pino has also addressed the conflicts between the doctrines of the church and homosexuality.
She travels the country with her wife of 13 years, Cindy, witnessing to both gay and straight audiences and coaching aspiring Christian performers.
Cindy was raised in a Roman Catholic home and especially struggled in her early years, living on the streets in her early twenties and abusing drugs. But she had a spiritual experience that led her to 30 years of sobriety, business success and a fulfilling relationship with Stevens-Pino.
The couple will share their testimony and music in Fort Lauderdale at The Sanctuary, Second Presbyterian Church, 1400 N. Federal Hwy. They will perform a concert at the church on Saturday, June 15 at 8 p.m. and during services on Sunday morning, June 16 at 11:15 a.m.
They are appearing as part of a two-Sunday series by Pastor Dwayne Black entitled, “Why God Loves Gays.” While the church has long been known as a gay-affirming congregation, Black said he still encounters people who have been scarred by traumatic religious experiences as children or young adults.
“For many within, the church is about maintaining traditions and customs that give order to their society. For others, this is an issue of justice. And yet still, for others it is all tied up in moral concern and questions around Biblical doctrine,” explained Black. “My hope and prayer is that we can take a fresh look at the Scriptures through historical lenses and listen to the real individuals who follow Christ and witness their testimony.”
If You Go
Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell
Presented by The Winter Jewish Music Conference
Sunday, June 9, 4 p.m.
Temple Israel of Greater Miami, 137 NE 19th St., Miami
Tickets $18-36 at JewishConcert.org
Saturday, June 15, 7 p.m.
Sunday, June 16, 11:15 a.m.
The Sanctuary, Second Presbyterian Church,
1400 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale
Free, Information at SanctuaryChurchFtL.org