LaReeca Rucker has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and her work has appeared in newspapers across the nation. She spent a decade as a features writer and multimedia journalist with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was also a USA TODAY contributor. She is a freelance journalist and support journalism instructor in the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.

Selah sees faith tested

LaReeca Rucker
The Clarion-Ledger

Headed to her first piano lesson, 4-year-old Amy Perry insisted she wanted to sing instead.

My mother told the piano teacher that she didn't know if I was going to participate, but the teacher also taught voice lessons," Perry said. "I went in with her, and about five minutes later, she came out and told my mom: 'She's not a piano player. She's a singer.'"

Today, the California native is one of three members of the nationally known singing group Selah that includes Todd Smith and Alan Hall. The group has sold 2 million albums, won the Dove Award for Inspirational Album of the Year four times and has repeatedly topped Christian music charts.

Sunday, Selah comes to Jackson's Christ United Methodist Church for a 6 p.m. concert.

Selah was founded by Smith (vocals), Hall (piano/vocals) and Todd's sister, Nicol Sponberg, who later left the group to work with her husband's ministry and pursue a solo career.

For Perry, joining the group was a journey that began in 2000 when she moved to Nashville at age 24. She lived in the city five years and was almost ready to give up and head home when Selah began looking for a replacement singer.

"People kept telling me that if I lost 80 pounds and dyed my hair blonde, I would get a record deal," Perry said. "I wasn't going to do that."

The soprano proved to be a perfect vocal fit for Selah, joining the group in 2005.

"God just brought this to me, and it's been amazing," Perry said.

Her faith was strengthened during the first couple of years with the group, but Perry said it was tested in 2008 when Smith and his wife lost their newborn. Audrey Caroline was born April 7, 2008, and lived a little more than two hours.

Smith's wife, Angie, created a blog called Bring the Rain at chronicling her pregnancy experience. She also wrote a song called I Will Carry You (Audrey's Song) that was featured on the album. A month and a half after Audrey's death, Sponberg lost her 2-month-old son, Luke, to sudden infant death syndrome.

"We chose to trust (God), and it's not been easy," Todd Smith said via the Selah website. "Every time we hear that a person's life has been changed through what happened to us, it gives weight to Audrey's life."

The story is also reminiscent of two hymns selected almost 10 years before the family tragedies for Selah's debut album "Be Still My Soul." Horatio Spafford penned "It Is Well with My Soul" after his four young daughters died in an 1873 sea disaster. And in 1932, Thomas A. Dorsey composed "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," when his wife and infant son died during childbirth.

The Smiths have since had a fifth daughter, Charlotte, who has joined Kate, Ellie and Abby.

"I remember being so angry on behalf of Todd," Perry said. "He didn't seem as angry as I was. I wondered how he was getting up on stage and saying that God was good in the middle of this brokenness. God used Todd and Angie to teach me how to praise God through broken moments."

Perry also uses stories from her life to minister to fans. She talks about her husband, who was devastated when his first marriage fell apart before he and Perry met.

"Todd and Allan urged me to share it every time we're on stage, especially since 50 percent of Christian marriages, like others, end in divorce," she said on the website.

Perry also talks on about her weight struggles.

"I had a boyfriend who told me I was too overweight to marry, and I lost a bunch of weight for the wrong reasons.I'm a real girl. I have real problems. Look at me. I'm clearly not thin, but I'm OK with who I am, and it's taken me this many years to get here."

Michael Kemp, senior associate director of worship arts at Christ United Methodist Church, said the Selah concert is the first performance organized by the church's new entertainment evangelism ministry.

Entertainment evangelism has two purposes, said Kemp, a saxophone player, who once performed with the Nashville-based group Denver & the Mile High Orchestra.

"The first is to encourage the body," he said. "We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to love, support and encourage Christians. "The other purpose is to reach out to the lost in the community. Coming from this industry, I have seen countless times when people have come to a concert and their lives are completely changed all because it's wrapped differently. It's not 'church.' It's delivered in a different package."

Each performer brings a different musical style. Hall has a country/bluegrass background. Smith likes classic rock and classic Christian contemporary music. Perry prefers pop and urban gospel.

Kemp said the first concert is experimental.

"Things like this don't happen often in the area," he said. "I hope there's an obvious need, so that we can continue in the future."


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