When the Men of Zion sing, the room reverberates with joy. People can't help but tap their toes or clap their hands to the beat of the music.
The reaction pleases the 10-man gospel group, but their biggest hope is that the words and music penetrate hearts and souls.
"[We're not] a minstrel group," said Henry Hansard, director of the Men of Zion and associate pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church. "We are out to worship, to minister and to spread the gospel of Christ."
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski) Members of Men of Zion are (from left) front row: Rick Jones, Jackie L. Jackson, Steven Jones, Andre Trainer and Donald Miller; back row: Steve Pierce, Clenic Figard, Henry Hansard, director, Elijah Harris Jr., and William Lightner.
The members attend Mount Zion Baptist Church, Fifth Avenue and 22nd Street, and sing at the 11 a.m. service the fourth and fifth Sundays of the month. They also perform at special events once or twice a month.
Two events the group sang at earlier this year were the Altoona Area Christian Coalition's Signs of Justice Interfaith program held at Altoona Area Junior High and the Singout for Crime Victims held at the First Church of Christ.
The Rev. Betty Landis, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church and an organizer of the Signs of Justice event, said the coalition was thrilled to have the group sing at its event.
"They are both very talented and have a wonderful message," she said.
Sue Griep, coordinator of the Victim/Witness Program in the Blair County District Attorney's office, said she is grateful that the men respond to the call to be part of the Singout every year.
"They are a great crowd motivator. Their spirit and passion shows through in their music," she said.
The group has been together for more than 10 years but have only been known as the Men of Zion for about five years.
The singers never tire of blending their voices in song and ministry.
For William Lightner, it's something he is compelled to do.
"Singing was always part of my life," he said. "Even as an adult, I wouldn't stop singing for the Lord."
But Lightner admitted he has a deeper purpose in being part of the group.
"I enjoy gospel music, but if we're ministering and helping individuals that's really my goal," he said.
Steve Jones, who decided to follow Jesus after hearing the men sing a few years ago, looks at it as a way to give back.
"God has done so much in my life," Jones said.
Another member who wants the music to touch others is Elijah Harris Jr.
"If we just do what we do through praise and worship, for what the Lord has done for us, it can do nothing but lift up people," he said.
"We're not going out to entertain anybody. We're going out to lift up Christ," Lightner said.
The Men of Zion's gospel style has a range of influences.
"Praise and worship is a big influence for us, but we do a lot of gospel spirituals and black contemporary gospel," Hansard said. "I think people enjoy us because they like the praise and worship style we bring."
"I don't think we're just influenced by the black church," he said.
While he was involved in campus ministry for the Coalition for Christian Outreach at Penn State Altoona, Hansard was exposed to a variety of denominational worship styles.
"I think some of those churches have influenced my understanding of gospel music, even though they may not necessarily be Baptist in terms of background and influence," he said.
"People like to get in there and clap their hands, and we bring that type of flavor to our service," Hansard said.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin Edmonds, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church, was instrumental in the group's formation.
"Dr. Edmonds encouraged Robert Gregory to start a men's group," Hansard said.
Gregory is now deceased, but his choir has lived on under different directors.
"I came to Mount Zion probably around 2005 and got involved with the group," Hansard said. "We incorporated the name Men of Zion and it stuck with us."
Edmonds supports the choir and has the final say when the men are asked to sing at special functions.
"He keeps us grounded in the fact that we are out to worship," Hansard said. "We sing at fundraisers, African American heritage type functions sometimes we go to nursing homes," he said.
"I get blessed whenever we go out to the nursing homes and whenever we sing," Lightner said. "I'm blessed. It's receiving as well as giving."
"I just love getting out there, I just love ministering," Jones said. "I love the way it makes other people feel, the reception that you get. A lot of times you really, really touch people."
"It's that feeling," Jones said. "That inner worth, that inner glow that you get out of it. It's just a beautiful thing."