The spirit moves them

Two cousins from Seffner were born with music in their genes. They sing for Jesus - and for Mom.

Published July 2, 2006

As the boys put it, many can sing or carry a tune, but there are those who SING. The boys' voices twist and rise as they say it: "SAING!" As in, "She don't sing, she SAINGS!" You know what they mean.

One Saturday last spring, Juquan called his cousin Damarco. He had rewritten and rearranged a gospel hymn for him. He wanted Damarco to come over and learn it, then sing it the next day at Loving Hill.

Juquan played the hymn on his organ for Damarco. He had rearranged it to showcase his cousin's rich alto. He moved to the piano and played it again, in two tempos, fast and slow. He asked Damarco to choose. "Slow," Damarco said. Then they sang it together.

This was their first duet. The effect was overwhelmingly melodic: Juquan's silky tenor, Damarco's old-soul alto. It was the kind of singing that makes the hair stand up on your neck.

Juquan Lucas is 15. Damarco Fleming is 12. The music in their bodies is a "gift." Their mothers have it. They have it. They found it at Loving Hill, surrounded by mothers and grandmothers and elders and old heads. The boys come each Sunday in white shirts and black pants like the old heads once wore and learn how to become men as it was taught through song a century ago. Loving Hill is a different place from a different time. Everyone believes it takes a song to raise a child.

At a family picnic in 1997, the two young wives of the Fleming brothers wandered out onto the wooden deck. Kim and Sonya didn't know each other well. "It was just us in lawn chairs," Sonya said. "We started singing gospel songs."

Kim had grown up in Tampa's Belmont Heights. "I always had a broom in my hand, or a stick, pretending it was a microphone," she says. "But I was on the shy side. It's horrible to be shy, and that's why I've never allowed my kids to be that way."

Sonya had grown up singing in the choir with her mother at a little chapel in the Seffner woods, Loving Hill Primitive Baptist Church. It's a whitewashed building with dark-paneled walls. Children, tin badges pinned to their white shirts, serve as ushers. It has a piano in front of the pulpit, an organ and drum set in the corner. You can hear the music from down the road.

Official documents date Loving Hill to 1887, but Sonya held the post of church clerk as a teenager and remembers finding old books, pages falling apart, that dated the church decades older. The old books, which were later lost in a fire, hinted at a spiritual tradition rooted in slave times: the "hush arbor," a secret place in the woods where slaves gathered to pray and sing spirituals.

Loving Hill's earliest meeting place was the black cemetery on Bessie Dix Road. Hymns were sung outdoors. Singers sat on planks stretched across tree stumps.

Sonya's mother, Leona Hudson, remembers walking to Loving Hill as a child from the far side of Seffner. Children carried their best shoes and socks in their hands until they got there. From a distance, they could hear the singing. "They had an old, rough wood piano," Leona said. "We'd hear the old settlers and deacons singing, and we stepped it up a bit. We'd go to running."

They're the same hymns Juquan and Damarco now sing every Sunday.

* * *

From the start, there was one song for Juquan. Kim taught him to sing it when he was 3. It was a 1905 hymn, His Eye Is on the Sparrow. They sang it together on car rides.

People said they sounded alike. Except that Juquan would hold back, would sing softly, would only hint at the range and fullness of his gift. "He wouldn't sing from his belly," Kim said. "I'd say, 'NO! Sing from HERE!' I'd grab his diaphragm. 'You don't hold back. God gave you that gift. He'll take it back if you don't use it.' Then one Sunday at church, it came out different. He was about 7. It came out different."

Three years later, Kim was stricken by an attack of lupus, an illness she had struggled with for years. One day she was at work, the next day she lay paralyzed in intensive care.

"It was a Friday evening in June 2001," she said. "I was waiting for my kids. I couldn't lift my hands to fix my hair. I took the kids to my mother's house, then my husband drove me to the hospital. I prayed I'd come back."

She lay in a hospital bed for a month until her doctor allowed her to go home. She wasn't better. She was afraid she'd die from depression if she stayed. Her hospital room "felt like an asylum," she said.

For the rest of the year, all she remembers is looking out the window from her bed, waiting for the mail. "I couldn't walk, I couldn't get up." Kim's mother lost 30 pounds taking care of her.

Juquan had to be forced to go back to school. Kim's marriage was ending, and the boy was the man of the house. "I had to show him I could sit up so he could go to school with peace," she said. He helped her put on her shoes and fixed her breakfast.

As Kim recovered, she was able to stand up with a walker. She used it to get to the piano to exercise her hands. She had never learned to play, but she could pick out notes by ear. Juquan sat beside her and would take over the song. "That was how he began to learn to play," she said.

* * * 

When Damarco was 2, his grandmother, Leona Hudson, babysat him in her home, a mile from Loving Hill. He was surrounded by family history: photos of Hudsons, Moores and Hendrys who pioneered Central Florida as freed slaves. There was said to be some Indian blood, too. All were farmers. They constituted a long line of singers. "The roots of the church," said Loving Hill's pastor, Elder Leroy Turner Jr. "All great voices."

Damarco sat with his grandmother Leona at her dining room table. She'd start with standards, Precious Lord and Amazing Grace. They sang those. "Then I'd get the hymn book out," she said. "We always had a hymn book. I'd show him how to raise his voice, then drop it, then mellow out." His mother, Sonya, began hearing him in the shower. "He'd sing Old MacDonald like it was a hymn."

At Loving Hill, music director Therman Wortham said he had noticed "a round little guy" in the children's choir when he arrived two years ago.

It was around Christmastime. Wortham was getting to know everyone. The round little guy, Damarco, was about to sing Oh, What a Pretty Little Baby.

"I'm expecting a 10-year-old voice. When he opened his mouth, I was nearly knocked down. It was somewhere between a baritone and a tenor. It was powerful. And it was LOUD. I sat with my mouth open."

* * *

Juquan's home lies across the street from a pasture populated by grazing horses. Past the pasture, off in the distance, the gritty gray skyline of downtown Tampa rises up. The city is only 30 minutes away but looks as foreign as another planet.

In the fall, Damarco will start sixth grade at Progress Village Middle Magnet School. Juquan will be a sophomore at Blake Performing Arts High School.

All their lives, Loving Hill has been their spiritual Shangri-La. A different place from a different time. Somehow, in the shadow of the towering city skyline that looms over their futures, their white shirts and tin badges don't seem to offer much protection.

But the music is something else. The music that has shaped their childhood is older and stronger than anyone or anything. The hymn Juquan loves most goes like this: "I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free, for his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me."

That could be their real armor.

Sonya sings at many funerals and would like Damarco to sing with her, but she's not sure he's ready. Damarco's preferred audience is the family circle. Their presence when he sings reassures him, calms him. On Sundays, his father, Wilbert Fleming, a church elder, sits just below the choir, beside Pastor Turner. Other loved ones fill the pews.

Crowds make Damarco nervous. "When I sing at church, I don't look at the people," he said. "I look at my Auntie Urania his favorite aunt; she's 24. She sits in the middle, and we look right at each other."

When Juquan sings, he's usually standing beside Kim, his hand always near her elbow, to steady her. He said he doesn't think about anyone in the church. "I'm conscious of everyone there, but I'm thinking about the words of the song, what they mean to me. I go into my world. It's just me and God."

When his mother lay in bed with lupus, most of the family believed she would die. "Her doctors gave her a time period," Sonya said. "She had one foot on the banana peel. We all felt that."

So Juquan, now 15, tries to explain how that shaped him as a small boy, how it changed him, how music was part of it. When he was 10, did he make a deal with God? Does he sing to keep his mother alive?

Juquan answered the question as he leaned back on the living room sofa. He spoke softly, carefully. "If I had asked God to do that, it would have been against everything I believe in.

"I sing because I'm happy," he said, echoing his favorite hymn. "God has taken care of her. He has his master plan. I can't control that."

Yes, he goes to urban high school. "They accept me, or they don't," he said. Yes, he would someday like to win American Idol. "I like to have fun," he said. "But I think what I went through made me stronger. I was always mature. I put it this way: There's a time and a place for everything."

His time is coming. "I know that one day I'm going to make it as a singer. I can't wait until she actually sees that. When she sees me up there. Maybe I can bring her onstage to sing something with me."

He pauses. His eyes are half closed.

"Oh," he says, almost inaudibly. "That would be the world."

John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.