NEWARK, NJ — The Rev. Stefanie Minatee sat in a front row pew at the Greater Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark, instructing a gospel choir of about 40 to start from the top.
“One and two and three and four and,” she counted off, as the drummer followed her lead.
Minatee wasn’t standing in front of the Jubilation choir as she directed them during the Jan. 27 rehearsal. A cane sat close by as she instructed her choir from her pew.
“I had the stroke in April in 2015,” Minatee told LocalSource on Jan. 26. “Since that time I have been weak on the left side, so my mobility is not what I want it to be.”
Her stroke hasn’t slowed her down. Minatee still serves as the artistic director of Jubilation, which had its start in 1998 and has performed with the likes of Queen Latifah and Ray Charles. On Feb. 3, the group will perform at the Union County Performing Arts Center’s Hamilton Stage in Rahway.
The Grammy Award-winning group will present “From the Middle Passage” in that performance, showcasing music, poetry and dance that documents the African-American experience, from the slave trade to Barack Obama’s presidency.
During rehearsals inside the church, the choir got some passersby to pop in and throw their hands up to songs like “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” by James Brown or “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. The group also performed older spiritual hymns like, “Motherless Child.”
“Anybody can come to the show,” said Jared McLain, Jubilation’s associate director. “It’s not just for the African-American community. It’s not just for older people. It’s not just for the millenials. It’s for everybody.”
McLain, 28, took over Jubilation about three years ago when Minatee suffered her stroke. He said the minister has been mentor to him throughout the years and even helped him earn a scholarship from the choir so he could attend Hampton University in Virginia.
“There’s a lot of love in the choir,” McLain said. “In life, it’s just difficult for new people to come along and take over the reigns, especially so suddenly. So what I really, really love about the choir is that they’ve been so supportive. They’ve been so encouraging.”
Minatee got her start teaching music after earning a degree in music education from Kean University. She taught music in the Plainfield Public School District and eventually moved to the ministry after earning a master’s degree in theology from Drew University, and finally a doctorate of ministry.
Creating Jubilation about 20 years ago was just a natural progression for Minatee, who now resides in Union but is a self-described “Newark girl.”
“Our motto is: ‘Gospel music should never be used to entertain, but to enlighten,’” she said. “It is the good news of Jesus Christ in bad times.”
The choir has brought its message to the secular mainstream, performing at the 2010 Super Bowl and the U.S. Open Tennis Championship.
Although the group was founded at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, the choir today brings together church members from around the state. Minatee, for example, serves as an associate minister at the Community Baptist Church in Englewood.
Jackie Turner, an alto, hails from the Saint James AME Church in Newark, and joined the choir after auditioning 12 years ago. “Nobody tries to outdo each other,” she said of her fellow singers.
“It’s really good to be with a group of people that you can sing with that you don’t have to deal with egos,” she said after rehearsal. “Everybody’s ego gets checked at the door. So whether you have a real big voice or a smaller voice, everybody can sing. That’s the one good thing about Jubilation. Everybody tries to work together.”
The last time Minatee sang with her choir was at a performance at Carnegie Hall in October, but said she doesn’t feel like she has recovered enough to get out and sing more often. She said her faith and and church community have helped her in the wake of her stroke.
“I don’t know where I would be if I had not relied on my faith and believing that all things happen for a reason,” she said. “And that I’m being used as an example for all the things God can do.”
Jubilation will perform at on Friday, Feb. 3, at 6:30 p.m. in Rahway. Additional performances are scheduled for Friday, Feb. 9 in Plainfield and Saturday, Feb. 24 in Englewood. For more information, visit the Union County Performing Arts Center website at http://www.ucpac.org/.