Logo: Susquehanna Folk Music Society
Presenting fine traditional arts in Central Pennsylvania since 1985

Folk Artists Gallery The Spiritual Messengers: Contemporary gospel music

About The Spiritual Messengers:

“Spiritual Messengers Warriors for God” is a contemporary gospel music group based in Harrisburg, PA. In September 2020, they spoke with folklorist Amy Skillman about how their collaborative fellowship is expanding the rich tradition of African American music.

“It’s a living culture ... a living music.”
The eight members of the Spiritual Messengers pose for a group photo in their performance clothes of black slacks, white shirts, black ties and vests that are greenish-grey with a moiré pattern. They are all men, appearing to be in their 60s or older.  Five are Black; three are White. Most are smiling slightly, though Wayne Boulware (center front) is grinning. They are on the front stoop of their home-base church; five are standing and three are seated on the step.  The door behind them is cranberry red, and the siding is white.

portrait of the Spiritual Messengers by Amy Skillman

The members of the Spiritual Messengers, in front of the church where they rehearse.
Back row: James "Mac" McFarland, Anthony Jackson, Tom Cook and Daniel Stern.
Front row: Jim McGroarty, Wayne Boulware, the Reverend Moses Jackson and (standing) Mark Ward.

About The Spiritual Messengers

One for one ~ One for God ~ God for us all

A diverse group of eight men sits in a circle, physically distant and wearing protective masks, but spiritually connected. Reverend Moses Jackson begins with a prayer to bless the gathering and to ask for everyone’s safety and good health, especially in this time of COVID. This is followed immediately by a call and response, sounding simultaneously like a chant and a football pep rally.

Listen to the Spiritual Messengers’ opening call and response:

James "Mac" McFarland leads:

Mac: “One for One” (all repeat)
Mac: “One for God” (all repeat)
Mac: “God for us all” (all repeat)
Mac: “What are we gonna do?”
ALL: Praise Him and lead souls to Christ:
Spiritual Messengers, Warriors for God...

[the last three words are sung slowly and in complex harmony]

How it began

The men are members of The Spiritual Messengers Warriors for God, a contemporary gospel ensemble that defies categorization. Rev. Moses Jackson, his son Anthony Jackson, James MacFarland, and Wayne Boulware are original members, going back to 1991. They grew up in the tradition: with gospel singing in their families, it was no surprise to find themselves drawn to it. As drummer Anthony Jackson says, “This just was like a magnet. It just drew me in and I’ve been playing, basically gospel. I do a little jazz here and there and still do a little R&B [Rhythm & Blues]. But this is the route. Gospel was the route; the lifeline, let’s put it that way...”

The remaining four (Daniel Stern, Jim McGroarty, Mark Ward and Tom Cook) have been with the group for about eight years. The group’s members come from all walks of life and it is this diversity that makes the Spiritual Messengers unique among gospel groups. Member Daniel Stern observes, “These guys are steeped in a great tradition that they have adapted and modified to their own style. That’s a gift... This is a distinct style, and it comes from the heart.”

“There’s a difference [between] learning it from books and then learning it from the source. This is part of a living community. This is not repertory music; it’s a living culture that’s produced a living music.” — Daniel Stern

Fellowship though song

The members come from a broad range of spiritual traditions. They identify more as “spiritual” than connected to a particular sect or denomination. They perform for weddings, birthday parties, family reunions, picnics, church functions and music festivals.

The original group formed in 1991, with sixteen members comprising the Male Choir of the First Spirit Filled Missionary Baptist Church in Harrisburg, PA. The group’s composition has changed over the years, and though they still practice at the church, they are clear to say that all are welcome. As mandolin player Tom Cook explains, “There are two aspects to it. One is the fellowship, it’s a men’s fellowship and it exists to create and sustain a sense of fellowship among the members. But then, we want to deliver the Word of God. And that’s what live performance is all about. And on a good night, I think I’ve seen the roof lift off some places. And you’ll know that happens when these guys start spirit dancing. The first time I saw it, I couldn’t believe it.”

The Spiritual Messengers pose in front of their church.  Rev. Moses Jackson holds a large white cross in front of him, at an angle with one end on the ground.  The cross is made of 4-by-4 material and is taller than Rev. Jackson.

photo by Amy Skillman

The Spiritual Messengers Warriors for God. From left to right, the group is Daniel Stern (alto saxophone), Jim McGroarty (keyboard), Anthony Jackson (drums and percussion), James (Mac) McFarland (vocals and tambourine), Rev. Moses Jackson (vocals, spiritual leader), Mark Ward (guitar), Tom Cook (mandolin), and Wayne Boulware (vocals, bass guitar, band leader).

More than one member noted that the group has been their source of healing and connection when things were difficult or challenging in their lives. Vocalist McFarland explained it this way. “For me, just being around these gentlemen, these spiritual guys, that motivates me. Being around them, and learning and singing, enjoying each other and just doing it for Him, you know; giving Him praise, lifting Him up.” Wayne Boulware concurs. “Every group has disagreements sometimes. But we have been able to endure, for the love of each other and respect for each other.”

Rev. Jackson adds, “And if we can just touch one other person with one of the songs — and we do that a lot. We have people who get up on their feet and just start to clapping and shouting. That motivates me. And a lot of times, oh man, a lot of times I come to practice and I don’t feel like being here, I don’t feel like playing, I don’t feel like singing, [or] doing nothing. And once they hit the first note, and I get up there and start singing, all that goes away.”

“...You can be the greatest musician that’s walking this earth, but if your heart’s not right, then it won’t work out” — Wayne Boulware

All the members acknowledge that it is truly a group effort, everyone working together to reach the audience with their music. Founding member Wayne Boulware says that “besides attitude and disposition, we look for humbleness in our members.” Guitarist Mark Ward acknowledges that it isn’t about egos: “...when you’re doing songs in front of people, they want to hear what the singers are singing... the music, it can’t be too loud, you know, should be just right... set just right, so they can hear what’s going on.”

Not your typical gospel

The Spiritual Messengers are deeply rooted in traditional African American gospel with its harmonies, call-and-response, group singing and complex rhythms. However, their repertoire spans the whole range of Contemporary Gospel, from early spirituals through R&B and Soul music, even pulling in reggae beats and pop sounds reminiscent of The Temptations or the Chi-Lights. Keyboardist Jim McGroarty explains, “It’s more of a mix, sort of R&B and gospel; a lot more R&B feel... we might do a medley of old-timey gospel tunes that are pretty standard, but the rest is all originals, things that are hard to classify, exactly.”

Somewhere Down the Line
Listen to the original song “Somewhere Down the Line” from The Spiritual Messengers’ 2012 CD Lord, I Want to Talk to You

This musical diversity comes from the composition of the group. Boulware says, “The sound is something different every time you hear it. Having a mandolin changes the whole sound of a regular gospel song. Tom also plays mandolin with a White gospel band, but when he brings that sound to the Black gospel tradition, oh man!” And Daniel Stern’s alto sax adds a feel of Jazz or Soul.

“It’s soul-saving music” — Anthony Jackson

Anthony Jackson adds, “There’s something in it for everyone. Wherever we go, there’s always someone who can connect to our different styles of music. ... Saving souls through music, that’s our mission.”

A collaborative writing process

Most of the group’s original songs are collaborative works: everyone contributes something. Tom Cook explains, “The group works on a riff; somebody will start playing something and it grows like topsy. I brought a song in that I didn’t think was very good. By the time they were through with it, it really feels like a major song to me. So, it’s not a radically different sound, but Wayne and Anthony are really trying to go after colors that other groups don’t have... It’s a group effort. The whole idea is to keep talking as a group.”

An informal rehearsal in the church’s fellowship hall. Rev. Jackson and Mac McFarland are singing from their seats at a table in the foreground; they are sitting with their backs to the camera.  On the far side of their large circle, four others are playing instruments: Wayne has his electric bass guitar, Anthony is sitting behind a drum kit; Tom has his mandolin, and Mark has his electric guitar. All the men are wearing masks and staying several feet apart from one another.

photo by Amy Skillman

During a socially-distanced rehearsal in September 2020, Rev. Jackson and Mac sing from seats by the table and (from left) Wayne, Anthony, Tom and Mark play instruments on the far side of the circle.

The song “Take the Children Back” is a good example of this collaborative process. One night, while Rev. Jackson and Wayne Boulware were waiting for the other members to arrive for rehearsal, Rev. Jackson started talking about his childhood. He noted that they often ran off and played in the woods and, although his mama never knew where they were, she just had to call and they would come home.

Hearing this story, Wayne said, ”Say that again! about your mama not knowing where to find you.” He started picking on the guitar and putting words to it. ”By the time the rest of the group got there, we had the song almost together.” They all liked it so they started working on it together, each musician adding something from his own expertise.

Take the Children Back
Listen to the original song “Take the Children Back” from The Spiritual Messengers’ 2012 CD Lord, I Want to Talk to You

Music for social change

Rev. Jackson notes that, although a lot of young people like their song “Take the Children Back”, it also has an effect on the adults — and “it’s the adults’ responsibility to take the children back and teach them how to act.” The children must be held accountable, and taught to be accountable.

Boulware adds that the message is, “However you can relate to the children, the bottom line is to show love. Let them know your history, let ‘em know what you’ve experienced. Like Brother Mac did for me [as his gym teacher in high school]. Sometimes it’s tough love, but love is involved.”

The Spiritual Messengers draw on their own experiences and the Word of God to inspire others to love and respect themselves and their community. With originals like “Take the Children Back” and “Clean Up,” they are creating social change through music, carrying on the tradition that inspired the Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Scholar and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon said of the Freedom Songs, “It was the first time that I knew the power of song to be an instrument for the articulation of our community concerns."
Smithsonian Folkways Artist Spotlight: “Bernice Johnson Reagon, Civil Rights Song Leader.”

“The bottom line is to show love.” — Wayne Boulware
Trapezoidal sign by the road in front of the church: the name of the church appears at top, worship details at the bottom.  In the center, movable letters create this message: “Keep distance with Man but come close to God.”

photo by Amy Skillman

In a message referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sign in front of the church where the group rehearses reminds passers-by to practice physical distancing but not spiritual distancing.

Learning together

“Early on,” says Rev. Jackson, “I couldn’t carry a tune through the door. [laughter]  But thanks be to God. Because you see, God’ll bless you. We be expecting God to bless us one way and he’d bless us another way. Because I always wanted to play a guitar or keyboard, but he blessed me with a pretty nice voice to sing, and I just use that to try to reach the people.”

Rev. Jackson recalls, when the group first started out, “We thought we could sing. But we’d sing in unison. And then we went to practicing harmony and it was a long time before they could get us back into unison. Now, we can be singing a song in unison and jump right into harmony. We taught ourselves.”

Wayne Boulware adds, “Someone once told me, ‘You should be able to hear everyone singing, hear every voice.’ I’ve trained myself to hear the voices of everyone in the group. It comes from knowing everyone’s voice, where their range is, where they can go.”

Tom Cook recalls that when he first started playing with The Spiritual Messengers, he was in the habit of playing a lot more notes, a style he picked up playing Bluegrass. But the Spiritual Messengers said to him, “Tom, what’s your hurry? Stop and enjoy the notes.” It was good advice on many levels.

Life-changing advice

Whether it’s singing songs or changing the world, the Spiritual Messengers have it figured out. Use what you’re blessed with. Do what others are doing, or do something else that fits in, and learn to switch easily between the two. Get to know the people around you. Use everyone’s strengths. Understand that being a group is more than just being together. Respect tradition, but keep it fresh and alive in your own way. Don’t settle for what you can do today; get better. And yes — slow down and enjoy the music.

“The Messengers is really bigger than the sum of its parts.” — Tom Cook

Listen and learn more

Two resources for learning more about gospel music:

The Spiritual Messengers pose in front of their church.  Rev. Moses Jackson holds a large white cross in front of him, at an angle with one end on the ground.  The cross is made of 4-by-4 material and is taller than Rev. Jackson.

photo by Amy Skillman

The Spiritual Messengers Warriors for God. From left to right, the group is Daniel Stern (alto saxophone), Jim McGroarty (keyboard), Anthony Jackson (drums and percussion), James (Mac) McFarland (vocals and tambourine), Rev. Moses Jackson (vocals, spiritual leader), Mark Ward (guitar), Tom Cook (mandolin), and Wayne Boulware (vocals, bass guitar, band leader).