For those who weren't already aware: Christians actually do like to party. And in Southern California, their festivals are some of the biggest summer events around. Case-in point: the 5th annual Long Beach Gospel Fest is taking over Marina Green Park this Sunday, commanding over 20,000 people for a day of worship, contemporary gospel music and, yes, lots of partying. Headliners this year include Mary Mary's Tina Campbell, Deitrick Haddon (also a star of Preachers of LA),Tasha Cobbs, Kierra Sheard, Jonathan Nelson, Myron Butler, Jessica Reedy, Brian Courtney Wilson and more.
The man behind all this righteous revelry is Pastor Wayne Chaney, one of the stars of Oxygen's hit show Preachers of L.A. Along with his wife Myesha, he first conceived the fest in 2009, after years of expanding Antioch Church in Long Beach. Aside from having a lively TV-ready personality, he also has a strong sense of how to present gospel music for a new generation of fans looking for something that speaks to them as young people and also speaks to God. We recently spoke to Chaney to get a glimpse behind the growing Long Beach Gospel Fest.
OC Weekly (Nate Jackson): What made you first decide to put on Gospel Fest? Pastor Wayne Chaney: It was providence because [Antioch has] been a church in Long Beach for over 55 years and we were approached by a city councilman and a business owner Downtown, and they were having these the Summer Arts and Music festivals where they would block off the street and the most turnout they ever had was about 150 people for a jazz concert in the middle of the street. So they asked me if I could throw a concert and I said yeah, but they told me I only had two weeks to pull it off. So I told him I'd do it, but only if I was allowed to hold my worship service in the heart of Downtown. For one I thought the city could use the inspiration of the message that we share, the other thing is I knew in order to get critical mass, I needed my congregation to come out so we would be the core group that would build the concert. I advertised it KJLH, called everyone I knew in town and told everyone I knew. We had one headliner, Kim Burrell, and came out not knowing what to expect and for that first Gospel Fest over 7,000 people showed up over the course of the day. The fact that were able to do that in two weeks was a miracle.
Describe how the gospel scene has grown since you were young growing up in the church where you're now head pastor. My grandfather was the founder of the church, a well respected man in the community, and it was one of the leading churches in this area. It was also pretty conservative. I actually went off to college at Morehouse College in Atlanta and came back to visit. At the time I wanted to go into corporate law and be an attorney. But I was growing spiritually and I decided to come back and visit the church. But when I came back to visit my grandfather and the church that was once vibrant and flourishing had now dwindled into a few hundred people. He was getting up in age and he couldn't do what he needed to do. So I came back and decided that I would help him rebuild the church. At the time the demographic of the church was about 60 and over. I was about 21 years old. Since I've taken over, I'd describe it as "contemporary leaning with roots." It is multi-generational, the vast majority of our people are 25-40, and there's still a lot of seniors here from when I took over.
Do you find that you gain members as a result of Gospel Fest since it's such a huge public event? Historically we started the fest with a few pastors from other churches to gather with us...while this is something we host, something we pay for, one thing we try to do is share the influence of the event.
As a pastor, how did you become so knowledgeable throwing festivals? My first job ever was with Al Williams for the Long Beach Jazz Festival. When I was 15 years old, my aunt was a publicist for that fest and I wanted a summer job but was too young to really work, so Al would let me come work with them. So since I was 15 years old I would work for the Long Beach Jazz Fest and I did everything from answering phones, ticket sales, deliveries, VIP seatings, working with volunteer coordinators, the publicist and handled merchandising. I didn't realize that 20 years later or so I'd be throwing my own fest. And I can't tell you how much I use those insights with out fest because the magnitude is really similar. But in addition to my efforts, my wife Mayesha is a business genius, has an attention for detail and doesn't leave a stone unturned. Another coordinator named Markel Ringer, who has production background, is a production coordinator, talent coordinator and is launching his own company called Sophia Creative, which handles production solutions and events for churches. He's coordinated our team of volunteers here and the show is probably gonna be the best we've ever had. To think we started with one headliner, and now we have about 10-15 national headliners, we're really proud of the project.
How does the lineup you've got this year represent where gospel music is headed today? Many of these artists are the new faces of gospel. The thing I like about most of them is the fusion of contemporary expression, but your sense the gospel roots in their music. You still get the message, the authenticity and the gospel roots...I remember about 15-20 years ago when Kirk Franklin came out with gospel music with contemporary beats and catchy hooks, he was criticized by some and demonized by others. But to be in a market now where you can see a full range of creativity without the criticism, that's really great because you want artists to be able to express everything they are without being restricted by the genre. That's why you had so many people in years past leave the genre to go into a more mainstream career because the gospel crowd didn't give them that flexibility. But I think that's changing now. The possibilities are infinite within the genre and people will see that in these artists.
Talk about the tribute during the festival to honor the victims of the Charleston Emanuel AME Church shooting. Churches are safe havens that the most racist individuals in the country usually have a reasonable amount of respect for but this [attack] sent ripples throughout the nation and the world because that sense of safety was robbed not only from that church but for many of us. One of the things we wanted to make sure happened through this tribute, we wanted to make sure the victims memories weren't forgotten. We wanted to also make this a declaration that if you were expecting the church to go into a hole and hide, that's not happening. Our response is that we're gonna be bigger and better in our resolve to change humanity. We wanted to unify the community, so on that stage you're gonna see people from all walks of life, all races, and also along with the pastors of the city leading a prayer, there will be local, state and national politicians that are still confirming their participation. This is a sign of unity in that what was meant to divide the country along racial lines is now used as an opportunity to unify us. And finally, the Christian faith is steeped in adversity and our best expression comes in the wake of adversity. We don't want this to be any different.
Where do you see Gospel Fest going in the future in terms of its development? What's your ideal goal for this event? Long Beach has been defined by so much, sometimes positive, sometimes negative. But as far as what I want, when people think of this city, I want them to think about what the people of God were able to do there as well. Wherever I go in the world, the first people say when I tell them I'm from Long Beach, they ask if I know Snoop Doggy Dogg--whether I'm in New Zealand or Malaysia. I want when people consider Long Beach, I want people to not be able to talk about this city without the life, hope and inspiration that people who love God were able to produce. I would love to move this from a one day Gospel Fest to entire week or weekend.
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Any news about the Preachers of LA show We already have two seasons under our belt and after the second season, the [Oxygen] network wanted to expand and franchise the show. They just completed season one of Preachers of Detroit. Currently they're wrapping filming of the Preachers of Atlanta. My hope is once they wrap that filming, they'll green light season three of Preachers of LA. I think what makes it special is that they're not just people who were thrown onto a television show, or the craziest folks they could find to go on television, these are all legitimate voices within the Christian community who had a platform before the show but now have been able to increase their reach because of the show. It's rare that you get credible people within the Christian community who are interesting as well. Somehow the production company was able to host a show that harnesses both.
Gospel Fest happens this Sunday, July 19, at Marina Green Park, starting at 10:30 a.m. with a worship service with music starting at 12:30 p.m. Free admission. For more details on the lineup and set times, etc. Click here.