Singing Jazz

Gabby Black grew up in the Messianic Jewish movement in Long Island, New York. Her dad grew up Baptist, and her mom grew up Catholic. “My mom got in trouble with the nuns for asking too many questions,” says Gabby. And her dad was interested in the connection between early church worship and the Jewish synagogue. So her parents left their respective churches and joined a Messianic congregation.

Gabby was a year old when, according to her parents, she sang for the first time. “I was just singing to jazz radio stations,” she says. As she got older, she loved music. “As a child who was very structured, it was nice to have a place of freedom and creativity. That’s what music was.”

Gabby loved the Messianic music at church. She tried singing with her mom and aunt in front of her congregation when she was eight years old. Her part was the bridge. “I couldn’t even start it. I was just overwhelmed,” she says. Gabby bawled, partly because she was nervous, and partly because she could physically feel the presence of God for the first time.

Gabby succeeded in singing in front of them when she was 10. When she was 12, she joined a worship team at her church. She went to a Catholic high school and did “musical theater, choir, and all that kind of musical stuff.”

Simple Song

At her Catholic high school in 12th grade, Gabby was asked by the theater head to play Mary for the live Stations of the Cross. She was excited and also a nervous wreck. She had to perform five times for all of the classes. “I was in the costume, and I was ready to go. And I said, ‘Okay, Lord, I’m singing, but they need to feel and hear You. Because if they don’t, what’s the point?’”

This wouldn’t be Gabby’s only prayer for others to hear God through her singing. In college, she chose the Associate of Arts in Classical Voice. One of her last performances at this school was a treasured experience. Her voice professor, who knew she was a Christian in a non-Christian environment, gave her a piece called “Simple Song” from Leonard Bernstein’s play “Mass.” The song lyrics begin with,

Sing God a simple song: Lauda, Laudē
Make it up as you go along: Lauda, Laudē
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things,
For God is the simplest of all,
For God is the simplest of all.

The remainder of the lyrics are similar to passages from the Psalms.

Gabby prayed a similar prayer before her performance as she did before singing as Mary in high school. Except this time, she was singing for nonbelievers. “Let them hear You, not me,” she prayed.

Gabby felt the presence of God tangibly as she was singing. After her performance, non-believing professors asked her voice teacher, “What was that? That was different. I have never heard her sound like that before.”

Gabby was elated, knowing that they had heard God and not her. “God can show up in any context as long as you’re willing and you make room for Him to show up,” she says.

Davidic Dancing

After earning her AA in Classical Voice, Gabby continued her education toward a B.A. in Worship Leadership in Memphis in one of the top schools for that program. Gabby absolutely loved it. The head of the department, one of her teachers, drilled into his students, “I need you all to know that worship is a lifestyle, not the music you choose.” This repeated message put everything into perspective for Gabby.

Every worship leader in the program led worship twice per semester. “So one day I was like, ‘Alright God, what are we doing?’ Because I had no idea,” says Gabby. “And He was like, ‘You know how you learned Davidic dancing as a kid? Well, you’re going to do that.’ And I was like, ‘No, we are not. I am not doing this… Okay, I’m doing this.’”

When Gabby showed the audience Davidic dancing, she invited them to participate if they wanted to. “And they all got up. The joy that they had made me so happy,” she says. “They were like, ‘We didn’t know we needed this until you brought it.’”

After graduating with her B.A., Gabby applied to be a worship resident at a church in Mississippi. She was accepted, and in August of 2021 she moved there to co-lead worship and help create set lists. “It was really fun. And I think it took the rose-colored glasses off of ministry because I saw the same people all the time, and we did the same thing every Sunday,” says Gabby. Yet, she had joy in the work she was doing. “I think everyone should have that experience to figure out whether they want to do ministry or not. Can you take off the glasses and still love doing the work?”

The residency would be coming to a close, and Gabby realized she really wanted to go to school. In March of 2022, she was invited to join a group trip to visit Asbury Seminary. “I really went in very neutral,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Road trip!’”

A Worship Concentration

On the Kentucky campus of Asbury Seminary, Gabby enjoyed the tour, the woman preacher in Chapel, and her message on holiness. She loved the service and, on her way out, she started tearing up and could not figure out why. “And then I stood there for a second and said to God, ‘Oh, You want me to come here to Seminary.’”

Gabby began at Asbury Seminary in the fall of 2022 and, while working in the Admissions office, noticed the Master of Arts in Leadership and saw that it offered a worship concentration. “I was like, ‘Time out. What?!’” says Gabby. “I was ecstatic. I was so thrown.”

Gabby loves her program. She is a Chapel Team intern, sings in the Chapel Band, is a Seminary Singer, and is in voice lessons with an upcoming recital. Her favorite classes are – unsurprisingly – her worship classes. “Specifically, I read a book by Robert Weber called ‘Worship is a Verb.’ There’s highlights, arrows, pen and pencil all up in that thing,” Gabby says. “He basically gave words for how I had been thinking about worship.”

Gabby is excited to learn skills in her leadership classes, particularly cross-cultural skills. “I don’t think you can be in ministry without being willing to say, ‘My way is not the best way. My denomination is not the best one. I need to be open to other worship expressions around me… It all looks different, but the foundation is the same.”

She Disappears

Whatever Gabby’s future and calling may look like, she wants it to reflect the words she heard about Messianic Jewish musician Paul Wilbur. A woman interviewed about his music once said, “You know, he has a glorious voice. You can hear the talent and the training. But when he sings, he disappears. And you see the God he’s singing to.”

Gabby says, “That wrecked me. If I ever remember why I want to do this, I go back to that. I would love that to be said of me: ‘When she sings, she disappears. And you see the God she’s singing to.’”

But Gabby is not only open to being a church musician and a worship leader. She wants to be “a really high class musician, period,” someone nonbelievers can come to when they need something. “Theater matters a lot to me. Acting matters a lot to me – music as a whole. We need believers in environments that are beyond the church. Because, how do you get the gospel out there if nobody’s out there?” she says.

Gabby’s experience growing up in various Christian contexts has given her a love for the diversity of the church, not only ethnically but also denominationally. According to Gabby, she felt God in her Messianic Jewish synagogue, her Protestant Christian school, and her Catholic high school, not to mention the various worship environments in which she has served. “The church is diverse. And it should be,” Gabby says. “And I think we need to not be afraid to step out of our denominational bubbles.”

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