I am Yvette Matthews, a member of the chancel choir, and I have been here at Brown Memorial since September 2015. Because I am so new to this congregation, it was gratifying to have Michael Britt ask me to share my story with you. Prayerfully, someone will be blessed by what I have to say.
I am the oldest of six children raised by a single mom in the projects of Cherry Hill in southwest Baltimore. Our community was an experiment in urban living designed for low-income black families, and black veterans returning to the states after World War II. Growing up there in the late 50s through the 60s was not always easy, but it was a wonderfully rich experience. Everyone in my neighborhood looked like me, my friends and classmates, my neighbors, my teachers, the principal at my elementary school. The dentist, the lawyer, and the three doctors who served our community were also black. They were homeowners who lived in Cherry Hill, as well and raised their families there.
There were five churches in my community—Baptist, Methodist, AME Zion, Pentecostal and Catholic. My siblings and I were raised in St. Veronica’s Catholic Church. It was there I first learned how much God loves me. It was there that I learned what Jesus had done to save my soul, and that God would take care of me if I turned my life over to Jesus. So, I did, and God has had his hand on my life ever since.
According to the powers that be, since I was poor, black and female, my chances for success were slim. But God put me in Mrs. Bernice Johnson’s fourth grade class. She taught us children’s songs in German, and every Thursday morning we watched “Let’s Speak French.” At the end of the year, we performed “Little Red Riding Hood” in French for the entire school. I found my love for languages in Mrs. Johnson’s fourth grade class. God put me in Mr. Clifton Ball’s sixth grade class where he taught us to sing in three-part harmony. I found my love for choral singing in Mr. Ball’s sixth grade class, and as a result, I sang in choirs all through middle school, high school and college. At the end of that year, Mr. Ball recommended eight of us to participate in the accelerated program at William H. Lemmel Junior High School. We would be doing three years of middle school in two years. At Lemmel, I learned to strive for excellence, a fierce work ethic, and perseverance. Eleven girls in my class qualified for entry into Western High School, one of the top high schools in the city.
At Western High School, I continued my study of music and the German language. Our curriculum was very rigorous, to say the least. Please keep in mind that at this time, Baltimore was still primarily a segregated city. Its public schools had only recently been integrated. According to the powers that be, I should have been a statistic . . . poor, black and female. According to them, I should have dropped out of school in eighth grade, been pregnant at 16 and on welfare. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. My friends and I (all 11 of us) graduated from Western and went on to colleges and universities up and down the east coast. I went to Coppin State and became the first in my family to earn a college degree.
After graduating from Coppin State, I began teaching at Homewood Elementary School #74 in east Baltimore. I loved teaching, and I was good at it. But God had another plan for my life. A classmate of mine invited me to her church to meet Maurice Murphy, their new minister of music. So, I went with her to choir rehearsal at St. James Episcopal Church Lafayette Square. He was teaching the “Ceremony of Carols” by Benjamin Britten to a group of middle school and high school girls, and oh, the sound they made together! I took a folder of music, sat in the back of the room, and stayed for the next 37 years. I raised my daughters there.
In my second year with the choir, Maurice told me he could not in good conscience keep me singing in the choir when he knew I had a gift that needed to be developed and nurtured. He asked if I would consider studying voice with him. I was married, with a three-year-old daughter and a full-time job. He told me to go home and talk it over with my husband. He said, “I will teach you everything I know about classical music, but if we go down this road, it may change your life.”
And thus, began the most exhausting, exhilarating, difficult and rewarding time of my life. Maurice Murphy became my teacher and my friend. Under his guidance I learned vocal technique, English and Italian art songs, German lieder, French chansons, oratorios and opera arias in five different languages.
When he felt we were ready, I began entering vocal competitions, and winning. There were song recitals and oratorio performances all over the Baltimore Washington area, performances with the Baltimore Opera, the Baltimore Symphony, the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and a Verdi Requiem with Southern Maryland Choral Arts.
Maurice sent me to my first New York audition, and I got the job…Miss Lily in Sherwin Goldman’s production of Porgy and Bess at Radio City Music Hall. Soon after, there was an 11-week engagement with Houston Grand Opera, and a position with their touring company for the next three and a half years. You may ask, “How did you manage touring for so long with a young family at home?” I didn’t. God did it. The company manager knew there were 15 of us in the cast who had young children or teenagers at home. He arranged our schedule so that we were never away from home for longer than three weeks at any one time. He did that for three and a half years. We performed in 17 cities in the United States, three cities in Canada, London, Paris, Florence, Milan, as well as Tokyo, Nagoya and Sapporo, Japan.
On opening night at La Scala in Milan, Italy, I came to the theater a full two hours before our call. The theater was dark except for a few work lights onstage, but I walked to center stage and stood there looking out into the empty house. Have you ever been in a space where you felt you were exactly where God wants you to be? That is how I felt that evening. I was standing in the same spot that Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti and Leontyne Price had stood before me. Not bad for someone from the projects in south Baltimore. And yes, Christie, I cried like a two-year-old…tears of joy and gratitude. For God had opened doors for me that I could not possibly open for myself.
Not long after our return from abroad, word was out. The Metropolitan Opera company at Lincoln Center was about to premier its first production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Six of us went to the audition from Baltimore, and all six of us got the job! You cannot imagine my excitement to be part of that ensemble…48 classically trained black musicians handpicked by David Stivender, chorus master of the Met Opera, singing music that was especially written for our voices. All 16 performances sold out that season to rave reviews in the New York Times. They brought us back the next year, and again all 16 performances sold out. It had never happened before in the history of that opera house.
So, here I am church, in the sixth decade of my life and God is not finished with me yet. I cannot express how grateful I am to be here at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church. You have accepted me into your midst just as I am. What a joy it is to use my gift to worship God in this place. You know, it is hard to be sure of anything these days, for we are living in very uncertain times, but let me tell you what I am sure of. First, we serve an awesome God who loves us dearly. Secondly, it is His good pleasure to give us the desires of our heart. Thirdly, all He requires of us is a little faith, and then obedience. For me, obedience is the hard part. And last of all, I am positive that when God has His hand on your life, even if you are poor and black and female, nothing . . . NOTHING is impossible.