More than 20 years ago, when Barb Salak was a new member of the Gospel Meets Symphony Choir, she, a fair-skinned white woman, put her hand together with Brenda Chenault, a black choir member, for a close-up for a promotional photo shoot. The striking juxtaposition between their hands was a symbol of racial unity, illustrating how Gospel Meets Symphony was created in 1994 to form a bridge between both musicians and audiences of different races.

Now, Salak is looking forward to singing in Gospel Meets Symphony’s 25th anniversary concert Saturday at E.J. Thomas Hall. She was in the audience in 1994 for the first Gospel Meets Symphony, when the late Maestro Alan Balter introduced the cultural phenomenon to the Akron community. Salak was so moved, she joined the choir the next year.

“Once you start to sing with GMS, it’s like contagious, and you’re just part of the family,” said Salak, 67, who described the experience as a bridge across cultures, races and denominations.

Now, that meaningful 1995 photo of the women’s hands, black and white united, also serves as a symbol of the many friendships Salak has formed through singing in the Gospel Meets Symphony Choir.

“People haven’t had an opportunity to be with people from other races, and once you have that, once you meet people and hear their stories and you learn about their families, you realize that everyone has the same needs, the same desires in life and that people are not that different,” said Salak, who is an alto section leader and volunteers on the 25th anniversary committee. “We may look different but you know in your heart of hearts we’re not that different.”

Gospel Meets Symphony, which began as an Akron Symphony outreach to the city’s black community and churches, features a choir today that is about two-thirds African-American and one-third white or other races.

Gospel introduction

Gospel music was foreign to Italian-American Joe Salak Jr. in 2000, when he met his wife, Barb, who was raised in the southern gospel tradition and had been singing it most of her life. She took him to a gospel concert at the Chapel, and he decided to join the Gospel Meets Symphony Chorus with her in 2001, when the Akron couple was engaged.

Joe Salak fell in love with the music, the folks he sang with and the whole GMS experience. He had been a Motown and R&B guy, but discovered an appreciation of the rhythms and orchestrations of gospel music.

“For the first time in my life, my soul sang,’’ he said.

The bond Joe Salak experienced was so special, he realized he didn’t want his gospel-singing experience to be contained to just one major concert a year. Joe invited other Gospel Meets Symphony members to continue singing year-round, and the Exalting Him Gospel Choir was born in 2004.

Leading Exalting Him, a racially diverse choir of 15 close friends, is Joe Salak’s calling. The group’s local gigs range from Lock 4 in the summer to Summit Mall for its Christmas program.

“The people who have come over into Exalting Him, I consider them my Akron family,’’ said the Pittsburgh transplant. “When it comes to the music and the God we serve, we are soulmates, without a doubt, and we are locked at the hip. I think that music does that. Music crosses every kind of barrier there is between humans.”

He said Gospel Meets Symphony helped immerse him in Akron’s diverse culture: “It helped me to understand better the culture of Akron and the culture outside of my culture.”

Exalting Him is composed of singers from eight area churches, with 13 of them also having sung or currently singing with Gospel Meets Symphony. They’re bound by the fact that they’re not just performing — singing gospel is a form of praise and a celebration of faith.

“We are African-American and Caucasian. We are even more of a tight-knit group because we originated pretty much from Gospel Meets Symphony,” Barb Salak said. “It’s a group of folks who love to sing, love the gospel and we love each other, and that’s one thing that is definitely a result of GMS and the relationships that we made there.”

Lasting friendships

In addition to meeting for rehearsals and performances, the group gets together at each other’s houses, goes out to dinner and attends other concerts. Each year, Joe cooks a huge Christmas dinner for the choir.

“He throws down, honey! It ain’t just cooking; he throws down,” member Arlett White of Akron said.

A black singer who grew up with gospel music, White also leads the gospel music ministry Arlett White and Friends at the House of the Lord. Kathy McKee and Barb Salak, White’s friends from Exalting Him/GMS, also have collaborated singing and recording with Arlett White and Friends.

White, who has been in Exalting Him since its inception and is an alto section leader for Gospel Meets Symphony, said choir friendships can lead to some humorous moments, like the time she helped soprano McKee, 64, learn to rock from side to side.

“She didn’t know how to rock [in place] from side to side. I teased her about that. I would grab her and I would hold her arms so we could do it together,’’ said White, 62. “She literally was going off the stage and I had to grab her.”

At a recent Exalting Him rehearsal in January at the Salaks’ home, the choir celebrated Barb Salak’s birthday with cake. The group is so close, they celebrate not only each other but also their friends’ families.

“They recognize birthdays for my grandkids. They give gifts to my grandson, so they’ve always had a love for us,” White said of her gospel friends.

Antwan Benford, 37, who is unemployed and attends Macedonia Baptist Church, said his Exalting Him/GMS friends have been supportive by giving him rides to rehearsals and generally taking him under their wing.

“I’m not the most financially blessed of the group,’’ said the Akron man, who is a baritone section leader for GMS and is black. “I recognize the living God in each one of these individuals.”

Emotional support

Love and emotional support extend to McKee, too, a white singer from Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in Akron who asked her gospel friends for prayers in January when she found out that her husband Thomas, a former Gospel Meets Symphony singer, would be starting chemotherapy.

“You always give a hug, always say a prayer, always comfort each other,” White said. “We can just talk and be open about the real stuff, just put it out there, because she [McKee] knows we care and we love her.’’

Mary Kelly, who is Lebanese-Italian, said singing with Gospel Meets Symphony all 25 years and with Exalting Him since its inception has changed her life.

“That’s one thing I looked forward to when I joined Gospel Meets Symphony, was the friendships, was the black-white relationship. I looked forward to breaking racial barriers,” said the Akron woman, 66. “It was through music, through being able to be in choirs small like this [Exalting Him] and the larger ones, that got [me past] my fear of being with people of other colors.”

Now, Kelly, who attends Arlington Church of God, is thankful that she truly lives the precept “It’s not what’s on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside.”

McKee, in her 23rd year with Gospel Meets Symphony and an original Exalting Him member, agrees: “I just believe that it’s a little bit of what heaven is like, with all of us singing together, all denominations and all races.”

The Akron Symphony Orchestra is proud of the unique blend of races and cultures that Gospel Meets Symphony has brought about for the last 25 years. Choir friends of different races say they appreciate how their lives have been enriched. But they also say the bond of singing gospel music rises above race.

“Music is universal,” said Exalting Him member Jamie Barker of Akron, 53, who sang with Gospel Meets Symphony for two years and is white. “It has no color. It flows through everyone’s heart and soul. It joins people together.”

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.

“Music is universal. It has no color. It flows through everyone’s heart and soul. It joins people together.”

— Jamie Barker

Exalting Him member