Music sets tone for faith

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Early on a Sunday morning in 1994, longtime organist and choir director Eugene Harper was driving home from church listening to gospel music on local radio station WHUR-FM, just as he did every Sunday.

Lost in the music, a radio advertisement caught his attention: "A local Catholic church is looking for a gospel choir director. If you're interested, call … ." With no hands free to write down the number, Harper repeated it over and over all the way home.

Memorizing that number, it turned out, would help him recall something he had forgotten nearly three decades before: who he was at his core.

Little Liberace

Born in 1950 in the southeastern Virginia city of Portsmouth, Harper grew up surrounded by music and the Catholic faith.

His mother was a devout Catholic convert, and his father, a Christian, was a laborer at the local mill.

At about 5 years old, Harper started studying music. Every Saturday, his mother took him across town for piano lessons, and he'd spend hours practicing.

"The neighborhood kids would be playing in the park across the street and I was in the living room practicing. It was torture," said Harper. Children on the playground good-naturedly called him "Liberace."

Nevertheless, he kept plunking away and showed solid musical talent.

Like all African-American Catholics in Portsmouth at the time, Harper attended the all-black Our Lady of Victory Church and the parish school staffed by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent.

When Our Lady of Victory's organist left, a sister approached Harper's mother. "We know Eugene takes piano lessons," Harper recalled her saying. "Do you think he could play the organ?" Within six months, the 10-year-old was playing at Masses.

'The force of his goodness'

Segregation pervaded every aspect of life in Portsmouth prior to the 1960s civil rights legislation.

"It was not brutal segregation, but it was very separate; we lived in a very small world," said Harper.

Five years after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education that declared public school segregation unconstitutional, the decision was made to integrate Catholic schools in Portsmouth. Our Lady of Victory consolidated with the previously all-white St. Paul to form St. Paul's Central High School, eventually renamed Portsmouth Catholic High School.

According to a local government records collection, Portsmouth public schools were not desegregated until the 1960s.

Greg Pomije was one of Harper's first white friends at the integrated Portsmouth Catholic.

Now a lawyer in Portsmouth, Pomiji recalled one day in high school when the friends were studying with two white girls. Not long after the study session, the girls came up to Pomiji and told him how much they'd enjoyed talking to Harper. "They said they'd never met a black teenager before," he recalled.

"And that was the path Eugene took," said Pomiji. "Maybe not even knowing it, he was the type of kid, and now man, who would move toward a different world. He made headway just by the force of his goodness and personality."

Places unknown

Harper continued to excel at music in high school, along with being an honor roll student and a member of the basketball team. But he wasn't sure a career in music would be marketable, so after graduating from high school in 1967, he planned to study French at Hampton Institute, a historically black university about 30 miles from Portsmouth.

One of his first days on campus, Harper was walking by the concert hall and heard beautiful pipe organ music.

"I went into the hall, and there were three students, one of them was playing the organ," said Harper. He asked to play, and when he was finished the organ player asked what his major was. When Harper answered, the student looked bemused.

Within a week, the chairman of the music department requested to speak with him.

"All of a sudden I was majoring in music," said Harper, laughing.

The Lord is full of surprises, he noted.

"He just leads you to places where you should be, not where you think you should be or where you want to be," he said, acknowledging it can seem confusing at times.

His first Sunday at college, he went to the campus Newman Center and noticed there weren't many people there.

"No one I know is Catholic or goes to Mass," Harper remembers thinking. "My mother wasn't there telling me to go. Why do I have to do this?"

And so, for the next 27 years, he didn't.

A sponge for music

While away from the Catholic Church, Harper's music kept him connected to faith life.

He was organist for the chapel, concert and college choirs and the pianist for the Crusaders, a community choir made up of men from all walks of life - from brickmason to judge.

He also took side jobs as an organist for local churches.

Through music, Harper would meet two spiritually important people in his life. The first, Charles Flax, was assistant to the college chaplain and director of the Crusaders and chapel choir.

"He was a tour de force of what a Christian person should be," said Harper.

Flax encouraged students to bring music off a page and into their hearts.

He taught us to "make music a part of the ongoing Christian experience," said Harper.

His senior year, Harper met his would-be wife, Cora, a member of the chapel and college choirs.

"Over the years (Cora) dragged me along to church even when I wouldn't have bothered - not to convert me but just to be part of the religious experience," said Harper. "And I loved her for that and always will."

Through the choirs and church services, "my experiences in music grew exponentially," said Harper. "I took it all in. I was a sponge."

He was introduced to gospel music - Christian praise with the rhythms of jazz and blues.

Harper said the genre was growing in popularity during the 1960s.

"During this time you have integration, the Vietnam War," he said. "There was a lot going on in society that just called for a new view and vision of how we did things.

"Gospel was a connection with what people were understanding and living," said Harper. "It is very personal."

After graduating from college, he took a job as a civilian journalism intern for the Army. The job was the foundation of a lifelong career in internal communications for the military, including working as a script writer for audio-visual media at the Pentagon and serving as a chief editor of internal military news.

Work took him from Portsmouth to upstate New York and later to Washington. The family grew to include three children and eventually settled just outside Herndon.

Although he cut back on his musical obligations when his children were young, Harper stayed active in local church music programs.

Once his children were in high school, he joined the music staff at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Old Town Alexandria.

Harper said he came "this close" to converting to the Baptist religion.

At each Baptist service, there is an invitation to convert at the end of the sermon.

Once, when he was playing the organ, Harper nearly got up and accepted that invitation. "I turned my body, put my foot down from the peddle board," said Harper. "And then I froze. I was all set to get up. I couldn't do it. I can't explain to you why."

What lies at the core

In 1993, for the first time in years, Harper was brought face to face with the faith of his childhood. After his mother passed away, he spent time in a Catholic church working with a priest to plan the funeral.

"Going through that experience," said Harper, "I kept asking myself the question: 'When I pass away from this earth, what will be my church home?'"

About a year later, Harper found himself repeating that phone number as he drove away from Alfred Street Baptist Church.

He called the number and out of curiosity accepted an interview.

Soon after, Josephite Father John A. Carroll, then pastor of St. Joseph Church, offered him the job.

Harper accepted the position but made one thing clear. "I told him, 'I have no intention of returning to the Catholic Church in this job.'"

Within a year and a half, however, Harper was taking steps to come back into full communion with the church.

"In essence, when you get to my internal core, I never stopped being Catholic," said Harper. "That's how I was formed and made me into who I was. It was a very natural coming back home.

"The choir had a lot to do with it as well," he added. "They were very much who they are in terms of musical ability before I got there. I just kind of helped sustain them in that effort all these years. But they have been a blessing. They are a blessing to one another, they are a blessing to the church family, and they've certainly been a blessing to me."

Harper, now a grandfather of eight, will celebrate 20 years with the choir this May. And he has found at St. Joseph a place where his spiritual and musical life beautifully harmonize.

"The coming together of gospel music and the Catholic liturgy is like a marriage made in heaven," said Harper, "with the holy sacrifice of the Mass going on, and this music that is such a very, very powerful entree to faith, hope and love."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014