Choir Trip from Mississippi Becomes Ordeal

Members of a choir from Moss Point, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, who came to Chicago to perform in a concert last weekend are stranded by Hurricane Katrina. From their hotel rooms they try to get information about their families and homes. We hear them sing in a church and make their plans to head back to Mississippi.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A gospel choir from a small town on Mississippi's Gulf Coast has been stranded in Chicago since Katrina hit. Members of the group called J. Eric Brown & Charity are trying to get home, and many of them still trying to reach family members. The singers desperately want to know what's left of their homes, as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

Choir director J. Eric Brown says this was supposed to be a short trip for the group to visit Chicago-area churches while negotiating a record deal. Instead Hurricane Katrina significantly extended the choir's visit, and Brown is anxious to get back on the bus and look for family members.

Mr. J. ERIC BROWN (Choir Director, J. Eric Brown & Charity): We really don't even know if we're going to be able to make it back. We're just heading out. And who knows? Many of us may be back up here next week.

CORLEY: Home is Moss Point, Mississippi, located right on the coast about 30 miles from Biloxi, 40 miles from Mobile, Alabama, a town of about 15,000. Stranded in Chicago, the choir has been doing what it does best.

(Soundbite of song)

J. ERIC BROWN & CHARITY: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, Jesus.

CORLEY: At Mount Calvary Baptist Church on the city's South Side last night, the group's 23 musicians and singers performed songs of worship.

(Soundbite of song)

J. ERIC BROWN & CHARITY: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, Jesus.

CORLEY: J. Eric Brown began telling the congregation stories about Moss Point, about the newly built home he had left behind and about the beauty of the eight-mile stretch of beach, home to the city's most expensive houses.

Mr. BROWN: And we got word that there is not one home left standing on that beach, and that's what Katrina did to us all this week.

CORLEY: Past hurricanes have bypassed Moss Point; many choir members thought Katrina would, too. They didn't learn about the devastation until a friend in Florida called, and then the calls kept coming.

Mr. DAMIAN WALKER(ph) (J. Eric Brown & Charity): My name is Damian Walker. My concern is just trying to find out about my family. They're from Biloxi. I seen the devastation there, and we're just trying to find out if our families are all right.

Ms. CAROLYN THOMPSON (J. Eric Brown & Charity): My name is Carolyn Thompson. I have heard from my son, but I have not heard--that he was OK from a friend of mine. But I have not spoken to him nor heard from him since Sunday morning.

CORLEY: Being so far from home and for longer than expected has made it both financially and emotionally draining, though the choir members say they've gotten tremendous support from Chicago. Churches have helped pay their hotel bill, and just about everybody wants to help feed them.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

CORLEY: In the basement of Mount Calvary, there was potato salad, fried chicken, green salad and rolls. Ashley Brown jokingly says she knows she'll be on a severe diet when she gets back home.

Ms. ASHLEY BROWN (J. Eric Brown & Charity): We've been saying all the while that we've been stuck here that we better eat up as long as we can 'cause we don't know how long it's going to be before we can eat like this again when we get home. So that's just the nature of all of our relationships. You know, we just tease around like that to kind of keep our spirits up in a time like this.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Listen. Thank you, Father. Even in Katrina, I saw your power.

CORLEY: The singers say they hope their next singing stop will be Mississippi, normally a 15-hour trip, but that's when the roads are in good shape. They also know that getting there is just one of the many difficulties they'll have to overcome in the weeks ahead. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...that my poor soul--Come here, Lisa--could buy belief.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Thank you, Father, for your power.

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