ASHLAND, Va. (BP)–Listen for memories of Natalie when Jenifer Wills Stinnette sings “She’ll Wear a Crown.”
They echo passionately in her voice as she sings the song about a homeless child without a name. They flash in her eyes when she speaks about Natalie, a 7-year-old Hispanic girl she met five years ago on a mission trip to the inner city of Boston.
Stinnette saw an amazing transformation from fear to love during her brief time with Natalie, who would only open up to her. “Jenifer loves me,” Natalie said. “She doesn’t hit me.”
Since then, Stinnette, wife of the pastor of Gwathmey Baptist Church, Ashland, Va., has undergone an amazing transformation of her own that has launched the beginning stages of a career as a Christian vocalist.
“She’ll Wear a Crown” is one of 10 songs on Stinnette’s first professional album, “Triumphant Praise,” that recently won the 1996 album of the year award in the Christian contemporary category of the Academy of Independent Recording Artists (AIRA) in Nashville, Tenn.
Stinnette said she believes she has a new song to sing after years as a church pianist and organist. Melody that tingled in her fingers and flowed through a keyboard off-stage has been reborn on-stage through her voice.
It’s a voice that got her booed off the stage in a junior high talent contest and failed to qualify her for a college ensemble group, painfully squelching early attempts to sing — but not to make music.
No one’s booing now as her voice, long dormant and awaiting its chance, has catapulted her from behind organ pit walls to center stage — not a stage she sought. It thrust itself on her, she admits, after she “struggled to make music for God and allowed him to make music through me, his way.”
She wants to use her music in an expanded ministry — especially to youth, in memory of Natalie and of teenagers she taught in California, where she and her husband, Tim, once were home missionaries.
It still surprises her that her voice spiritually stirs and visibly moves people, from casual listeners to music industry pros who chose her from thousands who auditioned for a chance to be recorded. She’s amazed she’s even made a recording or that it won the AIRA’s award and nominations for new female vocalist, vocal performance and song of the year (“Triumphant Praise,” the album title song).
“I guess it’s possible to do things I never dreamed of,” she said, “and, more than that, it’s surprising that I’m doing it through vocal rather than instrumental music.”
Music still pulses in her fingertips — motivated by a mother who paid her a penny a song to practice faithfully, trained by degrees in keyboard performance in college and seminary, and honed by lots of experience as a church organist and pianist.
Her mother’s pennies kept her on track musically when others didn’t respond to her efforts to sing, and they helped her become a professional musician who could read, play and direct music. Like pennies from heaven, they motivated her to follow a path God could use at the right time.
“My opportunity to sing and my ability to sing are gifts from God,” she said. “After 20 years of not singing, I shouldn’t have a voice. I should have lost my range.”
That was further complicated by a chronic and painful jaw problem, now much improved by surgery, that limited her ability to open her mouth. “My jaws hurt when I talked,” she recounted, “but when I sang for God I felt no pain, and my jaws allowed me to reach whatever notes I needed to reach.”
Stinnette said she battled frustration as she sought a niche in music and struggled to find God’s will for her music and life. Nothing seemed to fall into place as she had dreamed — especially her aborted desire to sing.
Then a remarkable thing happened.
One Sunday the choir director at a church she served as organist failed to arrive, leaving a huge gap in the music for the service. Pushed to find something to fill in, Stinnette selected an anthem from a Christmas musical she had directed.
But who would sing it? Certainly not her! Not after those early vocal traumas. Not with that jaw problem. But it had to be her or no one. To a professional, the show must go on — especially, she said, when its purpose is to worship God.
So, she took a deep breath, prayed and sang it herself. Her ability to perform, and the congregation’s enthusiastic response amazed her. That amazement has grown as one singing opportunity has led to another.
Music industry pros have tried to find a comparison for her stage presence and style, including those who likened her both t o a young Liza Minnelli and to an early Barbra Streisand.
Stinnette takes that as a compliment but doesn’t see herself as a copy of anyone, even the person she used to be. She sees herself “as a new Jenifer” who has found a new way to make a joyful sound.