NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — People affected by homelessness are finding a community in an unexpected place: a choir.
The positive effects of the Norfolk Street Choir are rippling across the community and across the country.
The music is a powerful testament: a message of strength and perseverance.
“Remember these are your words,” Director Robert Shoup said to the choir, referring to a piece of music they were rehearsing. “These are your words we wrote into this tune, right? So, it’s your story, so own it.”
Shoup started the group in 2016, after hearing a presentation at the Freemason Baptist Church about music in underserved communities.
“In this space, they come and not only do we know their name and get to know them, we affirm gifts they have,” Shoup said.
The choir is now in its fourth season of making music and changing lives.
Willie Johnson was one of the first singers to join.
“Well I came here one Friday morning for breakfast, not knowing about the street choir, and the guy said ‘Man are you going to stick around?’ I said ‘Stick around for what?’ I’ve been sticking here ever since,” Johnson said.
He worked in a shipyard his entire life. In 2014, he got sick, and money ran out. He found himself on the street.
“So, I finally searched around and found a spot which was in Harbor Park under the interstate bridge and which I was there pretty much off and on for three years,” Johnson said.
The Norfolk Street Choir gives him a sense of purpose. Music gives him confidence.
“It really gets down into your soul and it brings out things that you really didn’t have, that you thought you didn’t have in you, but you really do,” Johnson said.
Johnson is now living on his own in an apartment.
It’s those success stories that drive Shoup.
“We see people who walk in the door and we don’t know them yet, looking at their feet, not making eye contact yet, a little reluctant. A couple years later walking in with a smile, calling us by name, calling each other by name,” Shoup said.
When he started the choir, he met directors across the country who had similar groups. They’ve now organized into the “National Alliance for Music in Vulnerable Communities.”
“There’s a lot to learn from each other across the country,” Shoup said.
He knows music is the driving force that’s shaped this community.
“It never ceases to me to be a miracle that you put a bunch of people with different wills and ideas in a room and they can bend their individual wills to make something greater good happen that’s beautiful,” Shoup said.
The National Alliance for Music in Vulnerable Communities has its annual meeting coming up later this month.
If you want to see the Norfolk Street Choir perform, visit the group’s website.