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Come see The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir in person Friday November 30 at UVU for ‘A Soulful Christmas Celebration’ with special guests Loren Allred (The Greatest Showman) and Jenny Oaks Baker among others. Buy your tickets here.
I am moved by Gospel music. I don’t just mean that my heart is touched, I mean that often my feet are tapping, my hands are clapping and I can’t help but bounce a little in my seat wanting to jump up and join in. Yes, I mean that kind of Gospel music. The deep in your chest, chills up your spine kind that stays with you. The kind that will be presented in the 3rd Annual A Soulful Christmas Celebration presented by the Unity Gospel Choir under the direction of Debra Bonner. It is not unusual to be physically moved by it.
You may already be familiar with Debra Bonner or perhaps you’ve heard the musical talents of one of her eight children who are professional musicians in a variety of mediums and capacities. Most recently you may have heard them working together to contribute to the stunning musical score of the new film about a little-known friendship in Church History, Jane and Emma.
The Bonner Family seems to specialize in music that moves people.
And Debra Bonner, their intrepid mother and teacher, is one person who is intimately familiar with being literally moved by the Spirit. In the early years of their life together and after two years of missionary service for the Baptist church in Liberia, West Africa, she and her husband felt the Spirit tell them to resign and move back across the world to the United States. It was a difficult departure. Sister Bonner loved the work and she loved the people, but she trusted that there must be a reason even if she didn’t know what it was. The Spirit would move her again only a couple of years later, but this time the destination was even less clear and the trust required would be much greater.
Seven months pregnant and with two other young children, she felt moved again. This time she felt the spiritual impression to leave her home, her job and her community in the eastern United States and “go west”. To where? She did not yet know.
The Bonners had been living a life of service and not savings for some time and so with only $100 in their pockets, they hitchhiked westward across the country, no more sure then the first Church pioneers where exactly they would settle.
They found their way to Las Vegas and quickly met a Latter-day Saint bishop who took them into his home, though they weren’t members of the Church. “That family took us in like we were their own,” Debra said, and the missionaries began to visit frequently. They taught this family, who were already on a journey of faith, the fullness of the Gospel that they did not yet have.
“We already knew the Savior, but there was so much more that we didn’t know,” said Debra. They lived with the bishop and his family for two months before finding a place of their own. That experience planted a seed, but they had little to no intention of joining this Church that had no Gospel music.
Gospel music was more than just a passing fancy to the family and especially to Debra. Thirteen years old and unable to read, she had joined the Baptist church in Flint, Michigan and it was singing that Gospel music that had finally given her literacy, both with the words themselves and with the spirit that they brought into her heart.
They began to attend the Latter-day Saint ward in their area and finally decided that despite the critical music deficiency, they should at least pray about whether they should join. “The Spirit said, ‘be baptized at this time’”, Debra said, “and that next Saturday we were baptized.”
More than 35 years later, Sister Bonner is actively bringing the Gospel music she always missed into the musical landscape of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the contributions of her talented family and with the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir.
This Friday, the choir is presenting it’s 3rd Annual A Soulful Christmas Celebration in a special one night event at UVU that will feature Loren Allred, best known as the voice of Jenny Lind in The Greatest Showman and other special guest artists, including Grammy-nominated violinist Jenny Oaks Baker. The stage will be jam packed with passion and talent for a night that is not to be missed.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be able to share that which brought me close to the Savior—to be able to share it with my brothers and sisters,” says Debra, who is always thrilled to have a chance for her choir to share their love and testimonies in song. “Gospel music is all about Christ,” she added, “His atoning sacrifice and what He’s done for us individually and why we love him.”
The beautiful thing about a Gospel choir is that each member can have a chance to get to know and understand the Savior one-on-one and then unite their voices in praise and rejoicing of what each discovered there. “A lot of times we know about the Savior,” says Debra, “He atoned for our sins, he loves all of us. Instead of that personal, he atoned for my sins. I love him personally because he did this for me. I can go to him and talk to him.” But she believes sharing in devotional Gospel music can be a way to penetrate right into the hearts of their listeners and help them to feel that personal love from Jesus Christ.
True unity comes from that shared love of the Savior and from the knowledge that, though we may have different races, cultural backgrounds, or political opinions, we are all literally brothers and sisters and should care for each other as such.
Debra said Gospel music has also brought unity to her family and not just to the Unity Gospel Choir that she directs. At this summer’s 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Priesthood Revelation, the Bonner Family were able to join together to share a medley of primary songs in recognition of this momentous event.
“That was heavenly,” Debra said, “to have all my children, their spouses and their children: three generations on stage singing primary songs. It was just wonderful and getting to work closely together to get it done.” They enjoyed the experience so much, in fact, that that’s just what they want to keep doing, “To be able to come together as a family and share the gospel all over the world [through music].”
And Sister Bonner’s musical influence in her own family and with the Unity Gospel Choir has reached far beyond just audiences of those who share our faith. The choir was invited by the Church leadership to perform for leaders of the NAACP that came to Salt Lake to meet with them and the NAACP appreciated the performance so much that they invited the choir to come and perform at the annual NAACP convention in San Antonio, Texas. Then they were asked to sing again for the 100th anniversary of the NAACP in Utah.
The NAACP seems to deeply appreciate what the choir does and the choir is grateful for the efforts of the NAACP. With that mutual appreciation as a guide, music is becoming a mode of conversation that is opening doors and growing relationships.
Debra always knew it could be. Gospel music is what opened her heart in her teenage years and taught her how to feel the Spirit. From those feelings grew trust in the Lord and out of that trust grew her obedience to those promptings from so many years ago that would bring her the fullness of the Gospel that she didn’t even know she was looking for. And now The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that she was a little hesitant to join does have Gospel music and she had a significant part in making that happen.
“We’d love to have Unity Gospel Choirs spring up all over the nation,” she said. Because the greatest gift she can give is the greatest gift that she’s had—the ability to know the Savior personally through the power of music.
Come see The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir in person Friday November 30 at UVU for ‘A Soulful Christmas Celebration’ with special guests Loren Allred and Jenny Oaks Baker among others. Buy your tickets here.