When Carol Cymbala’s husband, Jim, pastor of The Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York, returned home one Tuesday night 30 years ago, it was with these words: “It’s done, Carol, it’s finished. She’s coming back. We broke through tonight in prayer.”
He was talking about Chrissy, the oldest of their three children, who had been estranged from them and from God for two years. Jim had just attended the weekly Tuesday night prayer meeting at The Brooklyn Tabernacle, and the congregation had cried out to God on Chrissy’s behalf.
On Thursday morning, the doorbell rang, and when Carol opened the door, there stood Chrissy.
“All I had in my heart and all I could think of when I saw her was how much I loved her, and how much I had missed her,” Carol says.
As Chrissy tearfully asked for forgiveness, Carol could feel a familiar refrain welling up in her soul—the one that has played out in every circumstance of her life, the one that undergirds the lyrics of every song she has ever directed with The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir: God is faithful!
“He’s been faithful to me,” she says, echoing the title of the song she wrote in the midst of the struggle with Chrissy and her own battle with uterine cancer.
“His promises are true,” she says. “Chrissy and her husband now pastor a church in Chicago. God proves Himself over and over again, as long as we continue to look to Him and trust Him.”
Carol has trusted God since she was a teenager. How else could someone who was so shy she couldn’t raise her hand in school and who couldn’t read musical notes become director of a choir that has produced 30 albums, and won six Grammys and eight Dove awards?
“There’s a saying at The Brooklyn Tabernacle that goes ‘She doesn’t know what she’s doing, but she keeps on doing it,’” Carol says.
Carol’s love affair with music began when she was 4 years old, when her father, an opera singer-turned pastor, returned from a missionary trip to Africa with recorded music by African singers. Carol was captivated.
“The harmonies, the rhythms, it was such a pure sound,” she says. “I come from a musical family. My dad sang in church. My grandmother was a gifted pianist, and my sister played classical piano. But even at such an early age, I recognized that the music by the African singers was like nothing I had heard before.”
Carol’s life revolved around church. It was her happy place, where she thrived, where she felt connected, where she sang in the choir her sister started and played the piano after she taught herself to play by ear.
She met her lifelong best friend in church. She also met Jim there, when she was 6 and he was 11. They began dating as teenagers and married when she was 21. Jim was as in love with Jesus as Carol was, and soon after they began their ministry, Carol’s father asked if Jim would consider helping with a little church in the heart of Brooklyn—The Brooklyn Tabernacle. And that’s where Carol’s dream of directing a large choir began to materialize—in a little rundown building on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn in 1971.
“The church had about 30 members, and it was in a neighborhood where there were a lot of drug addicts and prostitutes,” Carol says. “You didn’t have whole families. The people who were coming into our church, they were broken. And physically, the church itself was falling apart. But my husband and I felt strongly that, as negative as it seemed, that’s where God wanted us.”
Carol started the choir with nine members, some of whom were tone deaf. But as the church grew, the choir grew, and it mirrored the different ethnicities of New York City, with people from the streets, Trinidad, Jamaica and Puerto Rico.
“And I’m tossed into the mix,” Carol says. “An introvert among extroverts. A white woman in an ethnically diverse church. Never quite confident I can do what God wants me to do. Certain in fact that I can’t unless God does something. But the beautiful thing is He does do something.”
When she first began directing, she was painfully insecure. Most choir directors could read music. But she depended on her ear.
“I often questioned myself,” she says. “‘What am I doing? I haven’t studied. I haven’t prepared myself the way I should have for this position that I find myself in.’”
But God’s immeasurable favor fell on the choir. In 1981, they recorded their first album and later debuted at the famed Radio City Music Hall. And in the following years, the choir grew to 270 members, sang at Carnegie Hall, appeared on Good Morning America and sang at a presidential inauguration. And God took the church from the little building on Atlantic Avenue to the 3,300-seat Metropolitan Theatre at 17 Smith Street, still in the heart of Brooklyn, still surrounded by brokenness.
“You walk out of our building, and literally, people are lying on the ground,” Carol says. “There are people on the sidewalks just lying there, drugged out.”
People go into the stores, take things off the shelves and leave with bags full of merchandise, she says, and the store employees are helpless.
“This is the type of environment that we have now. And that’s why we need the Lord’s protection and guidance. Our church is open to everybody. We do have police in the lobby, but anybody and everybody can come in.”
One Sunday a man holding a gun came walking down the aisle while members were standing on their feet with their eyes closed, praying. When he reached the front, he simply threw the weapon down on the pulpit. At one choir rehearsal, a woman came in with a knife and cut up the drum set.
There’s been attack after attack, but at 75, Carol’s heart is still there.
“I still love the people,” she says. “My joy is the work of the Lord. That’s where God put me, and when you follow after His will, even though circumstances can be difficult, if deep in your heart you know that you’re right where God wants you to be, there’s joy in that.”
She fights through in the faith of the Lord, says her daughter Susan Pettrey, who helps with the choir. “My dad calls her a soldier, and that is what she is.”
Carol soldiered on when the church returned from COVID, and the choir had dwindled to less than 30 members.
“I didn’t even have a soloist,” she says. “It was like starting over. The first four weeks they sounded terrible, but as time went on, their voices started to blend.”
Before long, they were recording an album, filled with songs of praise and thanksgiving to God for who He is and what He has done. And as the trials fade into oblivion, Carol was once again that 4-year-old, captivated by the harmonies and rhythms of the choir she leads and the God she serves.
“Sometimes when we sing, it seems like the heavens open up, and I am overwhelmed with the glory of God, with His beauty,” she says. “When we are able to sing the message of the Gospel, I get overwhelmed because I know there are so many people who are listening who need Jesus so desperately. And when we get to see some of them come to Christ, oh my goodness, there’s nothing more fulfilling than that.
“Just to have had the opportunity to do that week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. It has been a privilege.” ©2023 BGEA
Photo: Courtesy of Carol Cymbala