If the cold dark winter weather is getting you down and you can’t afford to escape to Florida, your spirits might be lifted by the sunshine of some authentic gospel music next Sunday at First Lutheran Church in Bemidji. Even if you're not a Lutheran -- even if you're not a regular church-goer -- the Jan. 20 Epiphany services will feature a rare event in Bemidji, one that should probably not be missed.
Roosevelt and Elizabeth Slaughter have been playing the organ and piano for 45 years. They’ve lived in Bemidji since 1999 when their younger son moved here to attend BSU. Roosevelt grew up in Mississippi and Elizabeth is from Chicago, where they met in the late 60s. At the time, they both played spiritual music in the African-American tradition in Baptist churches.
“During my entire lifetime I’ve always attended church," said Elizabeth. "We were Baptists by denomination. So I sang in the choir and then I would do different numbers on the piano and later on on the organ at church. That’s basically how I started. Classical numbers mostly. Then later on I moved mostly to sacred music.”
Roosevelt remembers how their music brought them together. “I met my wife," he said, "when she was playing at her church and I was playing at United. That’s how we got together then. Sometimes I would meet her and we’d have a program and she might come there.”
Recently, they spent several hours practicing for next Sunday’s services at the church so they could become accustomed to First Lutheran’s instruments and acoustics. The church’s associate pastor, Linnea Papke-Larson and music director Sarah Carlson stopped by to hear them. Carlson looks forward to hearing the organ and piano together.
“It doesn’t occur that much," she said. "I know that it has been a tradition in some churches to incorporate a lot of organ and piano, specifically in Baptist churches. I know when I lived in South Carolina, there was some of that. . .I just think it’s a great tradition.”
Both Elizabeth and Roosevelt, who have been blind from birth, have had many years of musical training. Elizabeth remembers the special challenges she faced:
“While I was in high school my mom found a teacher that would be able to teach me Braille music notation, and so I began piano lessons," she said. "I took them several years, and then later on when I was in college, our pastor offered organ lessons to me, and so I had a sighted organ instructor until he passed away a couple of years later.”
Roosevelt received instruction in the historically black boarding school he attended in Mississippi:
“I saw my first piano when I was the age of eight," he said. "I’d heard of them, but I hadn’t seen one, and so I said I’m gonna play like that one day!”
Both Epiphany Sunday services are free and open to the public. Music director Carlson looks forward to a dynamic experience and hopes attendance will be good:
"The services are at 8:30 and 10:30," she said. "We hope people will visit with them during the in-between time during the coffee hour, just to welcome them and, hopefully, they’ll be back another time to share their gifts."
Elizabeth is looking forward to the opportunity. “We just want to be able to inspire the Lord through music," she said. "I hope that by hearing our music you feel the presence of Jesus Christ.”