‘RIGHT from when Oh Happy Day hit the international charts in 1969 I was hooked on gospel music,” says Marie Lacey, an ebullient, cheerful woman with a warm, wide smile, short, glossy brown hair and an air of boundless energy that belies her 57 years.
This is a woman intent on spreading joy through the medium of gospel music, a medium she grew up with.
Born and raised in Belfast, Marie was brought up in a Christian household and music was always a part of family life. Her mother, Margaret Leebody, was a well-known gospel singer who played accordion and travelled across the Province with her husband to sing aloud the word of God.
“My mother and father travelled all over the Province singing gospel music and people of an older generation will probably remember my mother in particular.
“Our house was filled with music growing up. My mother played an accordion - which was always an instrument that I absolutely detested!
“I remember finding this really funny cartoon one day and showing it to my mum. There were these two lines of people - one going through the door to heaven, the other long line of people going through the door to hell. The line going to heaven were being handed harps and the ones going to hell were being handed accordions!
“My mum and I used to banter each other something shocking.”
Led by her parents’ devotion to gospel music and her own passion for the genre as a joyful expression of faith in God, Lacey founded Belfast Community Gospel choir in June 2009. It was from the start very important to her that this would be a singing collective open to people of all faiths and none, of all backgrounds, creeds and denominations; a spirit of overweening inclusivity was her response to the divisions that have historically polarised our society; for Lacey the happy melodies and choruses her singers deliver, clapping and swaying, filled with a rapture of the kind typically seen in the American Bible belt where the genre of gospel music emerged in all its ecstatic glory, are the sound of Northern Ireland’s new dawn, a dawn that has arrived, finally, after the decades of violence and turmoil.
Lacey’s contribution to building a new image for a post-conflict province is BCGC, a delightfully uplifting group of singers with power, vim and bags of zest, who deliver infectious songs of praise and pop to lift even the darkest moods, and who have performed at Stormont, outside Belfast City Hall, at the Waterfront and in churches and other places of worship across Northern Ireland.
“I still feel this is the best gospel choir this Province has seen and right from the beginning people have embraced this choir because our only remit is to spread joy. We want people to feel hope, to feel uplifted, just to feel happy for as long as they are listening to us sing.”
But Lacey stresses that although a gospel repertoire is high on the choir’s agenda it is not limited to members who profess a Christian faith and some of their music is straight-up pop, clap-happy, secular, gleeful.
Her own faith is a separate matter and it is important to Marie that her choir is open to uplift those who share her belief in God and those who don’t.
She grew up a member of the Church of the Nazarene in east Belfast and was dedicated by her parents, undergoing full immersion baptism by her own choice at the age of 17.
“I was always very close to my mother but I feel that she led me to Christian faith strongly by example rather than by proselytizing.
“My mother was wonderful in that she refused to gossip about people or say anything bad about anyone behind their backs. Even when someone would have done something to wrong her in some way she still would have refused to speak ill about them. I was very touched by this refusal to leap to condemnation of others. I do feel that she had a very Christian approach to others and that she inspired me so very much in this way.
“Even when I was young and would come home from school and complain, ‘So-and-so said or did this’, she would chide me saying ‘Now Marie, you don’t know what sort of day that person was having; you don’t know what problems they might be struggling with.’ She just wouldn’t sanction gossip at all.
“She had that way of making me pause to try and think about that other person and try and empathise with them and try and see things from their point of view. When I was young that could be frustrating because I just wanted to moan, but as I got older I began to see that it was at the heart of Christianity.
“Now my mother was no saint; she had a fierce temper on her and she would certainly tell us all off when we did something wrong - but she has certainly inspired my own faith in amany ways.
“She lived this beautiful idea out: ‘If you can’t say something nice then don’t say anything at all.’ To me that is an aspect of Christianity that is way more important than managing to be at church every week. It’s how we live as opposed to how we superficially profess to be religious that really counts.
“I grew up in a household of deep faith and was taught to see this as a joyous, happy thing. I was raised by Christian parents to understand the importance of loving others.
“For me their’s was a very real Christian faith - in the sense that I felt it was something lived out day by day rather than being about following religious ideas in an abstract sense.”
I ask Marie, who has been married to her husband Lynas for over 35 years and who has a 27-year-old son living in Liverpool, if there have been times in her life when her faith has been tested, or when she has doubted its truth.
“I think everyone has moments where they say ‘Is what I profess to believe really and truly real?’ But I would say that my moments of doubt have always been fleeting because there have always been things that have happened to reaffirm my faith in people and my faith in God. I try to live in daily awareness of God’s presence and I pray every day.”
I ask Marie if her glowing air of indefatigable positivity comes from a place of Christian devotion?
“Absolutely. I would say that I just have a deep sense that God is with me and that through everything I do in life I just want to please Him. Even when I started the Belfast Community Gospel Choir I did so with a real hope that this would be pleasing to God - a way of giving him praise and recognition.”
What does Christianity mean to you, Marie, on a day-to-day, basis?, I ask, finally.
“My Christian faith just means so much to me. It is the blood flowing through my veins and my heart beating. Everyday life, I think, should involve an ongoing conversation with God.”
BCGC will perform at Bloomfield Presbyterian Church this Saturday and at St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast, on February 25. Visit www.bcgc.biz/.