It’s 11 a.m. on a Friday at Living Water Church, located at 16th and Market in the East Village. Steph Johnson holds a guitar and speaks into a microphone. âIf you have a solo, it’s time to memorize,â she said calmly to a seated group of about 100 people. A third of them have no shelter, another third are on the brink and the rest are volunteers or residents of East Village. The group forms an R & B / soul choir called Voices of Our City, and they rehearse for a week-long concert called “Summer in the City”, which will be held in the Quartyard.
The church is buzzing with vocal warm-ups, pre-show tremors, and the promise of lunch. Everyone is welcome to these weekly chants – people come for companionship and stress relief, but only about 50 of the members will perform. A few professional musicians tinker with their group’s equipment. Someone in the choir brought a kitten in a backpack type carry bag.
At the signal, they close their eyes and sing together on a vowel, with the digeridoo played by one of the musicians.
They repeat the Sister Sledge classic “We Are Family”, followed by “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King and “Homeless” by Paul Simon. During a break, they sing “Happy Birthday” to a young man named Ray.
The choir performs an original song some members wrote together called “Sounds of the Sidewalk”. He describes coins falling into a cup, a crying baby. An example of lyrics goes like this: “I must keep this hope for tomorrow / With my dignity inside / What’s mine is yours to borrow / Together we touch the sky.” The melody is catchy and the lyrics are a testament to the transformation in the lives of the choir members, in large part thanks to Johnson.
Johnson has no experience in social work or social enterprise. But three years ago, the 39-year-old San Diego native noticed a big change in the East Village. âIt seemed like overnight there were thousands more people on the streets. She began to learn about the problems of homelessness and learned that affordable housing had been cut while people on the streets went to jail. âI thought it was so incredibly inhumane. My mom is disabled and I grew up with the help a bit, so I know not everyone is in the same situation.
Johnson had befriended many people who lived on the streets. With her guitar by her side, she handed out food and water bottles and sang along with them. Sometimes she would bring friends and they would distribute feminine hygiene products. Around this time, Pastor Living Water noticed what she was doing and offered her church space to use for anything. âI thought, ‘Really? I don’t go to church. Truly ?’ Johnson recalls. âI said, ‘I want to create a choir.’ The words somehow came from somewhere else. I knew a lot of people I had met on the street, we bonded by doing art or singing. What started with one person grew to nine and then to 20. KPBS made a story on Voices of Our City at the end of 2016. âIt aired nationally on PBS NewsHour, and Our Lives No. ‘have never been the same, âshe says.
Johnson, a self-taught musician who worked in banking in her former life, was about to go on a European tour with her fourth album. But Voices was hosting gig after gig, so she put her album and her music career on hold. People wanted to hire them to play, but they needed money to transport the limbs and feed them (Voices provides food whenever they get together to sing). So, to be more organized and efficient, they organized auditions for a 30-member choir that rehearses separately and performs about one to four times a week. Their paid concerts include community events and conferences, but they also do concerts at places like women’s shelters. They even performed “Amazing Grace” with the San Diego Symphony at Bayside Performance Park in 2018. With the orchestra’s new musical director, Rafael Payare, they recorded an album.
Along with all the music and performances, Johnson had to learn how to start a non-profit organization and set up a board of directors. Today she is co-founder and executive director and also acts as musical director.
The concerts became a source of income which allowed them to hire a case manager, program director and drivers, a few of whom started out as choir members. They organize around ten programs, ranging from composition and guitar lessons to personal development workshops. Most importantly, they helped 40 people find safe housing or shelter. âThe enveloping support, the feeling of family, is the transformational element,â she says. Voices of Our City also does advocacy and trains its members in public speaking and telling their story. They regularly meet elected officials and attend municipal council and public transport meetings.
âWe really felt like in San Diego everything was so fractured. I couldn’t give people a phone number and say “Call this number” when I knew it was broken on the other end of the phone. So we use our popularity and our name. Many agencies now come to practice. Everyone is welcome, people who are sheltered, people who live on the streets. . . if they want to come and sing with us, they can sing. And so, you’re sitting next to someone who isn’t immune, and then that person is immediately in conversation with someone in a respectful dialogue, so it’s really unique.
Music and coming together is a very simple and free antidote to sadness, despair and loneliness, and Johnson seems to have struck a chord in the community.
Between songs, Johnson continues to teach the choir, not only about music, but also about performance, engagement, and presentation. Life skills.
She told the members that there will be paying customers at the concert and that the choir should think about sharing the room and not just taking over.
âI always try to give up my space or my comfort to make accommodations for others. Someone who bought a ticket, can you give them your seat? “
Harmony, it’s now a noise on the sidewalk of the East Village.
Editor’s Note: We first published this story in our Guide to Charitable Giving 2020. In May, Voices of Our City won a Golden Buzzer on TV America has talent. Then, in June, the organization lost its co-founder, Nina Deering, in a car accident. Our thoughts and condolences go out to all of the members of this choir who bring hope and joy to so many San Diego. Support them here.