Messiah Men's Choir: Minnesota Sounds and Voicesby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Arden Hills, Minn. — The members of the Messiah's Men choir have an unusual pedigree.
Instead of coming up through church choirs or music conservatories, they found their voices together after escaping their civil war-ravaged homeland of Liberia.
When they sing together, they raise their jubilant voices to celebrate a kind of emancipation that most Americans -- and the neighbors who hear their rehearsals at an Arden Hills home -- have never experienced first hand.
Choir members Trokon Guar, Matthew Benson, Claudel St. Jean and David Wilson spoke to MPR reporter Dan Olson for a new series called Minnesota Sounds and Voices. They say their religious message grows from the horror of that civil war.
All of them were in their teens and 20s when they joined thousands of refugees trying to escape a conflict that -- in its two parts -- stretched back to the 1980s, as government troops clashed with rebels. The country has lived with an uneasy peace since 2003.
St. Jean and thousands of others tried to reach refugee camps in neighboring countries, and along the way encountered government and rebel checkpoints where many were killed.
"There was a checkpoint called 'God bless you checkpoint,'" St. Jean recalled during a recent rehearsal in Wilson's basement. "That particular checkpoint, whenever you reached it ... they had someone lying there they'd already killed."
St. Jean says when he reached "God bless you checkpoint," what saved him was the picture of Jesus he carried.
"The other fellow that was standing there said, 'Wait, let me see what you have.' And when he took it he said, 'This is Jesus, so you can't kill him. Let him go. Put your clothes back on and leave this place.' So that's how come I survive."
Choir member Matthew Benson says many families were separated by the fighting, and his own sister, who was pregnant at the time, died in the conflict.
"She had to walk 19 miles to the border because of the war," Benson said. "When she walked across to Sierra Leone, she died during the childbirth, and the baby died."
All nine Messiah's Men are Americans now, or are seeking citizenship. They've sung together for nine years, traveling all over the United States to perform, including a recent appearance on a national television show for amateur musical groups.
Singing is their therapy -- a way to cope with the memory of smelling death, tasting death, being close to dead.
They tell audiences that the singers' survival stories prove there is always hope in desperate times, says choir member Trokon Guar.
"You'll get to see the positive-ness of hope, and the transformation it has brought into our lives," he said.