Renowned evangelist, civil rights crusader R.C. Wells dies at 84
Roosevelt "R.C." Wells, known as a barnstorming, globe-trekking preacher among…
BALTIMORE — “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound …”
The chorus stood, transfixed on the hands of its leader, Dorothy Carpenter Wells.
As she raised her cupped hands, their voices intensified.
“… that saved a wretch like meeeeeee.”
In the same way she has directed young singers for decades, Wells, age 83, sat in front of the Electrifying Easternnaires as they sang for the Central Church of Christ, unleashing a sweet, musical storm of song.
The concert was the culmination of a three-day, 50th anniversary reunion for a musical family that was born some 200 miles away in the New York neighborhood of Harlem.
Wells, the wife of R.C. Wells, longtime minister for the Harlem Church of Christ, founded the ministry and has spent the past five decades traveling the country with groups of young people, spreading the gospel of Jesus through music.
“This is about 50 years of singing and fellowship where no one was a stranger,” Wells told The Christian Chronicle as she dined with hundreds of singers in the Central church’s fellowship hall before the concert. “The ones from 1969 relate to the ones who just got in it in 2019.”
The ministry, however, is about much more than singing.
Wells, with a team of dedicated counselors, has groomed generations of young people from Churches of Christ in New York and New Jersey to handle life, to get their education and to let their light shine for the Lord across the country.
“It’s more than a song; it’s about relationships,” Wells said. “We travel together, we fly together, we have had losses. And the losses span many years.”
Her husband is among the recent losses. R.C. Wells, the Harlem church’s minister emeritus and crusader for racial equality within Churches of Christ, died Jan. 3 at age 84.
Just a few months later, sister Wells was back in front of the chorus, doing what she loves.
During their performances, “we do a segment called ‘Love the Lost’ (for the deceased),” she explained, “but when we get to that segment there are no tears. There is clapping because we knew them and we love them.”
About 1,500 Christians have sung with the Easternnaires in the past five decades, and many have gone on to become physicians, educators and professionals in business and other vocations. They came from Baltimore, Washington and cities across the country for the 50-year reunion concert.
“I had to be here,” said Sylvia Rawlings, who sang with the group in the 1970s and now worships with the Coleman Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn. “Sister Wells has been a big influence in my life.”
The singers were Dorothy Wells’ “other children,” said one of her daughters, Stacey Wells Young.
“When we were growing up, we didn’t fully appreciate that,” said Young, who sings in the group with her sister, Peggy Wells Autry, “but now that she is older it is a blessing.
“My mother was doing music ministry before they called it that. I’m just glad that she can see some of the fruit of her labors and that she ran her race well.”
Young directed several of the songs during the concert as her mother sat in a chair in the front of the auditorium and listened intently. Others were directed by Alice Carroll, a 41-year veteran of the ministry.
“In 1978, I was a newbie in the group,” recalled Carroll. “My mother was a counselor, and I was only 13.”
Counselors are an important part of the ministry, Carroll said. They accompany the youths as they tour the country, serving as chaperones and mentors.
“We pick the children up. We stay up all night to make sure they are in their rooms,” said Danielle Dusett, one of the counselors. “We sew their clothes. We are there for them because we really care.”
That care extends to spiritual formation and education. The group has raised $12,000 for a scholarship honoring Dorothy Wells, who enrolled at Queens College in New York while in her 60s to complete her degree.
“We want to raise more money for scholarships,” said group member Bryan Dickerson, “and 100 percent of the proceeds goes to the students.”
Dorothy Wells’ commitment to education began with her mother, Mary Carpenter, who served as dean of women at Southwestern Christian College in Texas, the only historically black college associated with Churches of Christ.
As the Easternnaires prepared to sing one final song, Dorothy Wells invited singers from the Central church to join them. One of the first to rise was Perin Tinsley, director of a vocal group in Baltimore.
He remembered fondly his days singing with the group — and his excitement at seeing the bus when it stopped in Baltimore to pick him up.
“The bus stopped at the Pitcher Street Church of Christ,” said Tinsley, who attended four youth conferences with the group. Dorothy Wells taught them the songs on the bus as they traveled.
Willie L. Rupert Jr., minister for the Central church, called the concert “an East Coast unity weekend.”
“We cling together in fellowship in the Churches of Christ,” Rupert said, and churches must do more to reach lost souls in the Mid-Atlantic.
“What else can we do?” he asked.
The Electrifying Easternnaires, he added, demonstrate the value in “fellowshipping, acquaintances and spreading the good news.”
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