It’s Friday afternoon in the gentrifying East Village neighborhood of downtown San Diego. The earnest sound of the Voices of Our City choir fills the modest Living Water Church of the Nazarene, formerly a second-hand clothing store.
Steph Johnson is directing this musical assemblage with Oprah-like gusto.
“Sing it like you’re saying it to somebody!” exhorts the jazz-musician-turned-homelessness-activist. Her enthusiasm appears to be bottomless. Johnson keeps a beat with her whole body while bouncy, raven hair cascades over the shoulders of an emerald-colored dress.
The choir is predominantly comprised of homeless people. Today’s practice draws about 75 singers. Some live on the street. Others are getting by in shelters. About a third of the choir are advocates for this at-risk community.
At Johnson’s urging, the Voices of Our City choir fills the room with a swell of emotion. “No, I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid…just as long, as you stand, stand by me…”
Voices of Our City Gets Noticed
Voices of Our City’s profile is rising. They regularly get booked for events. The choir is the subject of a Susan Polis Schutz documentary, The Homeless Chorus Speaks, which aired nationally on PBS. They performed a gorgeous rendition of “Amazing Grace” with the San Diego Symphony. And the producers of America’s Got Talent asked the group to try out for the next season.
The choir also took the stage and opened a star-studded show at The Wiltern in Los Angeles on January 23. It was part of a Homeward Bound benefit show that included Jason Mraz, Fitz & the Tantrums, Ingrid Michaelson and The Doors bandmembers Robby Krieger and John Densmore.
Indeed, there are highlights–but the reality is omnipresent. San Diego has the fourth highest number of homeless people in the country. A lack of affordable housing hinders efforts to remedy the issue. Initiatives to solve the problem seem to run in circles.
Nonetheless, during choir rehearsals, Johnson’s smile is a wellspring of hope and compassion. Hugs are commonplace. Each Friday afternoon practice is an oasis of love.
Pacing in front of a four-piece band that includes her husband, bassist Rob Thorsen, Johnson aims an unceasing barrage of encouragement at the choir.
“That’s it,” she sings and shouts during yet another round of Ben E. King’s powerful soul/R&B classic. “Stand by me, stand by me…I want you to mean what you say!”
Corporate Social Responsibility
Chance moments move the needles of our lives. Event producer Stephanie Tejada-Feinman was venue scouting for a 200-person sales meeting that was scheduled for San Diego when she found herself at Quartyard, a funky, outdoor East Village space.
Tejada-Feinman’s agenda called for a perfunctory, 15-minute drop-in. However, Voices of Our City happened to be performing at Quartyard on that August evening. Tejada-Feinman saw them and was magnetized. She wound up staying an hour and a half to listen to the whole program.
She promptly booked the choir to perform at her corporate event.
A senior producer for San Francisco-based Trademark Event Productions, Tejada-Feinman’s client was international eyewear maker Carl Zeiss Vision Inc. Tejada-Feinman realized the choir could be dovetailed into a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program.
What’s CSR? Any program, initiative or activity that allows visitors and travelers to be socially accountable to a local community. CSRs are do-good, give-back programs. They can be applied to small, medium or large corporate events (or even individual or family vacations).
“Over the past decade, interest in CSR from clients has soared,” Tejada-Feinman says. “There’s really been a shift in budgets from doing things like giving out swag—mugs, etc.—to getting involved with local nonprofits and giving back and making a difference in the cities where companies meet.”
The Corporate Gig
The sales meeting (titled “ZEISS Against the Machine”) took place in October at music-memorabilia-infused Hard Rock Hotel San Diego. After a group lunch, ZEISS attendees gathered for a teambuilding event focused on creating “sanitation kits” for homeless people.
Breaking into groups, the sales staff competed as teams by answering trivia questions. Concurrently, they filled plastic, zip-locked kits with basic essentials such as socks, soap, shampoo and other toiletries.
Near the end of the activity, an emcee congratulated the winning team, and noted that the kits—2,000 of them—would be donated to Voices of Our City. Polite applause.
Then a surprise guest performance was announced.
The choir was waiting in a freight elevator just outside the Hard Rock meeting space. On cue, the elevator door opened and 30 singers, most wearing their black logo-ed choir t-shirts, poured out.
Margaret Smeekens says the moment was transcendent.
“They announced us and it was like we were coming out of the tunnel at a football game,” says Smeekens, who oversees community engagement and performance bookings for Voices of Our City. “The crowd moved up close to us on the stage. It was nuts.”
The choir sang Paul Simon’s “Homeless” and the R&B standard “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”
“The crowd was definitely moved,” says Tejada-Feinman. “People were clapping and really getting involved. It was well-received. The ZEISS people had donated their time and energy to the kits, and it was such a great bonus to see the recipients in person.”
Several ZEISS employees teared up during the performance.
The energy exchange went both ways. “It was wonderful watching the expressions on the faces of people in the choir,” Smeekens says. “These are people who are invisible to society most of the week. On this day, they felt like rock stars.”
Voices of Our City: John Brady
Moments in time. Needles of our lives. John Brady knows about being singled out by the finger of fate.
Brady was onstage at the Zeiss event to thank the crowd for its benevolence. Along with the kits, ZEISS made a $5,000 contribution (half was raised by employees and then matched by the company) to Voices of Our City. And after the show, each choir member got to pick out a pair of ZEISS sunglasses.
Brady is director of operations and advocacy for Voices of Our City. Gregarious, articulate and meticulously dressed, he’s a former marketing executive. Nearly everyone who meets him does a doubletake when Brady recounts that four years ago he, too, was living on the street.
He’s the embodiment of the notion that anybody—living at any station of life—could find themselves homeless one day.
More than a decade ago, Brady was the victim of a hate crime. Instead of seeking treatment for trauma brought on by the brutal incident, he sought relief through self-medication. The ensuing struggle caused him to lose nearly everything, including housing. Brady says he was desperate and suicidal when Steph Johnson found him.
At the time, he was encamped outside the Living Waters Church (which was then at a different location). Inside the church, Johnson was busily putting her idea for a homeless choir into action.
“Steph roped me in,” Brady recalls.
Johnson had come into possession of a donated sound system. It was just sitting there in the church because she was having difficulty getting it to work. Brady had a background in stage/lighting/audio equipment. He came inside and hooked everything up.
Shortly afterward, Brady attended the second-ever practice of Voices of Our City. “There were maybe six people there,” he says, with a sigh. “Just look at what it’s become now.”
A Show and a Message
Indeed, look at it now.
Voices of Our City has signed up nearly 250 members. It’s become a 501(c)(3) that provides critical services to the homeless during and after choir practices. In addition to lifting spirits, it acts as an agency that has helped 45 members (including Brady) connect to housing and safe shelters.
The “choir that houses” has a dedicated staff of five, and recently moved into donated office space.
Brady regularly consults with the San Diego Mayor’s office and other local politicians. He also sits on several boards that focus on homelessness. You could say Voices of Our City has developed a voice.
Johnson serves as CEO. An accomplished singer/guitarist, she’s recorded five jazz albums as well as a TedX talk about the choir. She’s the rare mix of music director and executive director.
Finances are an ongoing struggle for Voices of Our City—but Johnson is excited about the prospect of finding more gigs for the choir in the meetings and conventions arena.
“Yes, we’d love to get the word out that we can do more corporate events like the one with ZEISS,” Johnson says. “We can bring in a wonderful show—and our show has a powerful message behind it.”
Tejada-Feinman concurs. Her company strives to produce “authentic” Corporate Social Responsibility programs. She says it makes a huge difference when working directly with a legitimate organization that can demonstrate direct benefit to the community.
Booking the Choir
Any visitor or local San Diegan is welcome to attend a Friday choir practice (11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.). Smeekens suggests you call or email ahead of time.
Johnson has been leading the choir in “Stand By Me” since Day One. The familiar song lyrics opine: “I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no I won’t, shed a tear…just as long, as you stand, stand by me.”
At a corporate event or during practice, communing with San Diego’s homeless choir can be a highly emotional experience. With all due respect to Ben E. King and his co-songwriters, it’s highly likely that while you stand by as this heart-tugging ensemble performs, you will shed a tear.
(The Living Water Church is less than two miles from the San Diego Convention Center. To check out the choir or look into booking them go to Voices of Our City.)