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Spreading Gospel 

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It's mid-morning, and things are a little screwed up here at the Marquette elementary school.

First of all, Kenny from the city's office of special events got lost on the way over "to this part of town" --the southwest side--and he was in charge of the banner. At the moment, about 300 primary-graders (from 100 different ethnic backgrounds, according to a school spokesperson), their teachers, and other guests are gathered for a preview of the gospel festival scheduled for this weekend in Grant Park. Kenny finally finds his way, walks in to great applause, and with the help of gospel star Reverend Dan Willis, who holds the other end, shows the audience the banner that should be gracing the stage.

Then he rolls it back up and steps aside.

Mary Matthews Productions, a small group exotically dressed in burnooses, has just finished a rousing gospel set, and the temperature in the little auditorium has been rising. Gospel great Ed Tucker couldn't get time off work at Federal Express, so he's a no-show this morning, and Reverend Darius Brooks ("Simply Darius") isn't here yet because he thought the show started at 11, not 10. Reverend Willis, head of a church and a huge choir in Oak Lawn, pinch-hits, singing among other selections an a cappella rendition of the Bette Midler song from Beaches--which meets with a wild response from the kids, who wave their arms and shout their approval.

Separation of church and state goes out the window. "Stand up and say 'I love you, Jesus,'" says Willis. They do.

Separation of school and commerce also goes out the window, as the kids await Darius. His time is being taken up by an homage to Quaker Oats, sponsor of the Grant Park gospel fest. "Do you like Quaker Oatmeal?" shouts a city spokeswoman in a hot pink blazer on hand for the fest preview. "Do you like Gatorade? Cap'n Crunch?" The kids yell their most vociferous approval. "Give the city of Chicago a hand. And give Quaker Oats a hand."

Pam Morris, the coordinator of the world's largest free outdoor gospel festival, who lives in Harvey, hosts a gospel radio show, and is a pastor's wife (married to the Reverend John Finley Morris Jr. of Bethel Apostolic Church of Christ on West Garfield), takes center stage in a lime green and black spring suit, trying everything she can think of to kill time and entertain the kids.

One game she tries is pitting the boys against the girls in a contest to see which sex has the most enthusiasm singing "If You're Happy and You Know It, Say Amen." She also gets them "woo-wooing" with such gusto they would put Ralph Kramden's Raccoon Lodge brothers to shame.

"Give June to Jesus," she yells. "As soon as you start writing 'June' on your papers, tell your parents you want to go to Grant Park. Everyone in the room is very important to the city--and to Quaker Oats."

Finally it's time for lunch, and the kids march out clapping to Morris's clapped rhythm.

Venetta LeRoy's second-grade class stays behind, still hoping to see Darius--if and when he arrives.

LeRoy, it turns out, is the teacher who contacted the city about hosting the gospel preview at the school. "This is a multicultural experience," she says. "It's something the kids would never be exposed to, and I thought the children would enjoy it."

Mary Beth Grill, a 20-year veteran of the school and its assistant principal, agrees wholeheartedly. Because of the preview, she says, "Some of our children will go to Grant Park for the first time. That will introduce those children to music they have never heard before. Like the Arabic children in the audience. They'd never get exposed to this American art form. The children here are very neighborhood-oriented. And yet I know Quaker wants to extend an invitation all around the city."

At 11 sharp, Reverend Brooks walks in and proceeds to entertain the 20 remaining children, who sit in the front of the auditorium. He's wearing a white turtleneck, gold chain, black patent leather shoes, sunglasses (on top of his head), and a white sport coat painted with a picture of a guy who looks a little like Darius himself.

He and Reverend Willis, who has stayed around, sing a duet; Darius plays the piano. They sound (and look) like a Wayne Newton/B.B. King combo--with a tinge of country. Towheads, redheads, Hispanic kids, Middle Eastern kids, and black kids watch rapturously.

"I'm so happy that we're getting knowledge to the kids about gospel music," says Morris. "It's beautiful, energizing. I thank God for helping pull this all together for all the people of the city of Chicago. For people of all areas, all kinds of people--black, white, Hispanic. That's my mission--full entertainment for downtown Chicago."

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