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Wright creating a congregation through song

The Total Experience Gospel Choir returns to perform tonight.

Pastor Pat Wright can’t quite put her finger on why so many people in the Evergreen State shy away from the gospel of, well, gospel.

Time and again, she said, organizations invite her Total Experience Gospel Choir to perform, only to ask if she might consider a program that doesn’t push the religion thing so hard.

“You knew you were inviting a gospel choir,” Wright said. “We’ve got ‘G’ in the title. Duh!”

Today, as she has for nearly a decade around this time of year, Wright and the choir will ferry across from their Seattle home base to the island’s Filipino-American Hall for Sing Out!, an afternoon-long choir workshop, concert, soul food dinner and all-around celebration of spirit and song.

Wright has every intention of making the day one that not only keeps the “g” in gospel but the “j” in joy.

“I’m a juicy singer,” Wright said. “I like people to come out there and have fun.”

Having performed her first solo at the age of three and begun directing choirs by 14, Wright grew up not content to keep gospel music inside the confines of churches. As she asserted in her high school yearbook, her life goal was to take it all over the world.

Thirty-five years of Total Experience and 33 countries later, she’s getting closer.

But her focus of late has also been national, with recent tours of the Southeastern U.S. to work and raise funds for hurricane Katrina relief. The group to date has raised upwards of a half-million dollars.

That work, along with the antics of American Idol contestant and one-time Total Experience member Sanjaya, got the attention of ABC News, which named Wright one of its 2007 Persons of the Year.

Wright assures intimidated prospective singers that with a love of music as the only pre-requisite, she’ll make gospel singing a comfortable endeavor for even the most tentative or straitlaced newbie.

And she doesn’t care what religious denomination or church her singers belong to, if any. The choir creates its own congregation in song, as long as members are prepared to commit, learn and work.

“I accept everyone as they are,” she said. “There are rules that everyone needs to follow, and as long as you follow them, I am cool with you.”

So within the rustic walls of the Filipino-American Hall, she’ll teach participants in the now-full workshop by rote, choosing songs that are quick and easy to learn, with no grand movements or gestures required.

“Before you know it, you’re singing gospel,” she said.

Total Experience first came to the island in 2000 at the behest of local historian Jerry Elfendahl, who didn’t think Bainbridge had ever marked Martin Luther King Day particularly soulfully.

After having attended four of Wright’s choir workshops the previous year, he’d also become a bona fide Total Experience groupie.

“Okay,” Wright told him. “If you find people who want to sing, I’ll do it.”

About 40 people showed up, and the experiment became an island-wide cooperative effort co-sponsored by the core steering committee, called Sing Out Singers, and Helpline House along with numerous other organizations including the Filipino-American Community, North Kitsap & Bainbridge Island Interfaith Council, Town & Country Market, the City of Bainbridge Island and the school and park districts.

Past proceeds and likely this year’s – the group will decide at a post-concert wrap-up meeting – have benefited Helpline House, Katrina relief through the Total Experience Gospel Choir missions and the Filipino-American Community.

Wright’s certain the event would be much bigger if they picked a larger venue, but they tried it once before and found the larger space less effective as a concert and a teaching space.

Not to mention the fact that she missed the gracious hospitality of Filipino-American community leader Rudy Rimando and his team, who always put dinner on the table.

“That homey feeling wasn’t there,” she said.

Now, after 35 years leading a choir that’s older than most of its members, Wright shows no signs of flagging. Performance after performance, she’s got a simple explanation for what keeps her heart in it.

“It is the spirit of God,” she said. “I totally believe that the spirit of God lives in me, as I believe he lives in everyone. But we have to find it for ourselves, and to magnify it for ourselves.

“And I’ve chosen to take it as high as I can take it.”

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In the spirit

Sing Out with Pastor Pat Wright, The Total Experience Gospel Choir and the 2008 M.L.K. Jr. Memorial Choir at 7 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Filipino American Hall. Tickets, $12/$6, are at Winslow Drugs. Proceeds benefit Helpline House, local non-profits and disaster victims. Call 842-4164.

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