When Larry Owen started the Men’s Mass Community Choir with the intention of starting a new celebration for Black History Month, he also wanted to bring African-American men to the forefront of their churches and community. As they celebrate their 15th season, it’s safe to say they’ve done that and much more.
Inspired by the male chorus the Traveling Notes, the choir started with fewer than 20 men. Today they boast 40 members, with around 35 to 45 people participating in their performances like their annual February program.
Owen said the biggest change over 15 years is how they’ve diversified. But that didn’t take long, with the first “white guy” joining the group just three years in. That guy was local businessman Malcolm Bryant.
“Sammy James, who I knew from exercising at the YMCA called me one night and asked if I would join,” Bryant said. “‘You can be the first white guy,’ he said.” Bryant told his friend he was not a talented singer, but James assured him it wasn’t about that — it was about relationships.
“We grew from that and we appreciated our diversity,” Owen said. “We saw how our group could bring different backgrounds together. So we focused our mission on diversity, and bringing the community together through racial and denominational harmony.”
The choir would continue to grow, adding men from all different backgrounds.
“That’s what makes us unique,” said Owen. “We have the mayor, a county commissioner, police chief, sheriff, business leaders and men who have had a lot of challenges. That’s the beauty of our group, and participation has helped a lot of people.”
“It’s brought an understanding to me of diversity in our community,” Bryant said. “We’re founded in the spirit of our creator. All different churches, ages and walks of life.”
Owen said the choir makes a point not to overcommit to too many performances each year, mostly because the members are very busy people. He said they typically do their annual February concert at Zion Baptist, followed by an encore the first Sunday in March at a more predominantly white church. Then they’ll take on the occasional special performance during the year.
They’ve sung the National Anthem at Kentucky Wesleyan College basketball games and performed before the Kentucky General Assembly. This year they hope to coordinate days with Little Flock Church and the Western Kentucky Botanical Garden.
Every fifth Sunday, they gather for a fellowship breakfast, where everyone is welcome.
The first time Bryant attended, he didn’t know what he was in for.
“Larry Owen invited me to his house for breakfast,” he said. “I thought it was just going to be us, and I get there and there was a tent in his yard.”
He said the breakfast was held with a sincere interest in making the community better by building up male mentors.
“Most were coaches, Sunday school teachers, and such that wanted to be mentors in their own communities,” Bryant said. “They were talking about real issues and asking to be lifted up in prayer.”
Now, the breakfasts are sponsored by a person, church or organization and held at different locations.
“It’s just to find camaraderie and laugh and share together,” Bryant said. “All the medicine we need to create a bond.”
“It’s a special group of guys that will sacrifice their time to be with us,” Owen said. “We do try to schedule around UK ball games and major sporting events,” he added with a laugh.
Bryant said other communities have asked how they can replicate what the choir does.
“But it’s not a strong agenda or rules,” he said. “It’s engagement and wonderful friendship. And it’s so much fun.”
The choir is open to new participants, and all proceeds from their hard work go to benefit the H L Neblett Community Center. The next breakfast is March 31 at 9 a.m. at Owensboro Christian Church.
“Our program is called ‘Men Praising God’ and that sums up our purpose,” Owen said. “That’s what we’re all about.”