Singing Praises To His Name
The gospel ministry of Thomas Sligh
Thursday, February 13, 2003
Look at him once and listen.
"Oh yeahhhhh! Yeah! Yeah!," he shouts, closing his eyes and shaking his arms, crouching down like a linebacker.
He's James Brown (minus the wavy hair-do.)
Now look, and listen, again.
"Praise Jesus. Hallelujah! Yes, Lord!," he intones, standing up and rolling his eyes heavenward, grinning in spiritual ecstasy.
He's a male Mahalia Jackson, all close-cropped beard and black Levi's and sharkskin shirt.
It's a recent Thursday evening at a Frederick townhouse, and Mahalia and Motown are coming together in the form of 28-year-old Thomas Sligh, a Philadelphia-born gospel singer and leader of Treasures of the Heart Ministries, the bumpin' (but holy) band he leads. In the cold, pre-snow night, Sligh and wife Zohnette -- plus about seven of their closest friends -- are rocking the house (literally) with a rousing rendition of "Rest in Jesus" as the Slighs' 2-year-old daughter, Jazlyn, crawls and jumps around on the cream-colored carpet.
Sligh's voice climbs a scale elevator as the four-person chorus sings backup, and he swishes his microphone through the air like a baton, punctuating the tune.
"Mention" ( Swish.)
"Hallelujah," Sligh says, glancing in a visitor's direction. And then, a little sheepishly, "I better stop before I get caught up."
Of course, it is too late for that; he is already caught up in the music, lost in the moment. Friends say that's easy for Sligh to do. "He is a heck of a singer," says David Earl Smith, who plays electric bass with Treasures of the Heart.
Zohnette isn't surprised by her husband's enthusiasm when he's with the band. "This has been his dream since he was a child," she says between practicing songs. "To make music, to minister to people, to help other people" through music.
By his own reckoning, Sligh's been singing "all my life." He comes from a musical family and is the son of a preacher. He moved to Frederick six years ago and works as a computer programmer for IBM in Gaithersburg.
But it's the Bible, more than bytes, that motivates Sligh to sing and perform, which Treasures of the Heart does at local churches and venues like Baker Park, as well as at gigs in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. The group has been playing together since September, and will throw down at Frederick's Mudd Puddle on March 1.
"When the spirit of God gets in there, it's an awesome thing," he says about performing.
Back in August, Sligh and Treasures released their self-titled debut CD. Recorded in Philadelphia and Washington, Sligh says the disc, which features tunes like "It's A Real Thing" and "Simply Another Blessing" has sold about 250 copies. And he figures he's given another 100 or so away. "It's really awesome the way it's been selling," he says, noting buyers from as far away as Japan and Italy.
"I knew I had to put [the songs] together," Sligh explains. "Before I moved to Frederick, God was just giving me a compilation of songs."
The disc is a mixture of musical styles. The casual listener might mistake some of it for BET fare: soulful grooves with soaring choruses, even a streetwise intro track featuring two men talking before church. And on "Take a Moment," you'd swear it's...Usher? R. Kelly? Somebody smooth.
Variety is part of what Sligh's musical career is all about, Smith says. "He can sing the hymns, he can sing more traditional gospel songs ... he can sing contemporary. He is probably one of the most versatile people I've seen.
Sligh learned music in church and continues to teach as a minister of music at Poplar Grove Baptist Church in Darnestown, where he is also a deacon. He writes his own songs and can play the saxophone and the cello.
He also has a reputation as a bit of a taskmaster among his fellow players. "We come over here and they feed us, then work us to death!" says backup singer Robbyia Ford, who quickly adds "Just kidding!" Ford and her husband Ricky answered an advertisement that Sligh took out last summer seeking Christian musicians interested in all types of gospel. "We came over and felt right at home right away," Ricky says.
Sligh has plans for another CD, and for many more performances. "Look for wonderful CDs, evangelism, and community functions to come from Treasures of the Heart Ministries," a one-page flier on the ministry says. "This is just the beginning."
With plans like those, it's a good thing Sligh has energy to spare, as he demonstrates at the practice session.
"Walk!" he sings at the chorus. "Walk!" they sing back.
"Hallelujah," he says.