Hoping for a healing note: Calvary Baptist Church’s late pastor to be remembered with favorite hymn

The choir sings during practice for Christmas Cantana at Calvary Baptist Church. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Dion LeMon, the director of music at Calvary Baptist Church, and his choir had hoped to strike an unforgettable note by presenting Apostle Richard M. Avant with a special gift for his impending retirement this year.

Mr. LeMon had visited music director Mack Wilberg of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in February 2015 and asked him if he could create a special choral and orchestral arrangement of Mr. Avant’s favorite hymn — “It Is Well With My Soul” — for his retirement celebration.

Much to Mr. LeMon’s surprise, Mr. Wilberg agreed to complete the project, which completely thrilled him and his group of singers.

They knew the musical arrangement of the hymn, written by Horatio Spafford more than a century ago, would help them give something memorable back to a man whom they had revered since he took over as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church back in 1982.

Unfortunately, Mr. Avant never heard the special song arranged just for him. He died on April 1, 2016.

The song will finally be performed in public for the first time on Saturday night at 6 inside the auditorium of Calvary Baptist Church during its annual Christmas Cantata. The church is located at 163 Victory Chapel Road west of Dover.

Music Director Dion LeMon during choir practice for Christmas Cantana at Calvary Baptist Church. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“(Mr. Wilberg) has been a blessing to us this entire process,” Mr. LeMon said. “We were working on this for (Pastor Avant’s) retirement and this was going to be a big deal and a big surprise, but then, unfortunately, we had his passing.

“So now, it’s gone from a celebration to a memory.”

Mr. LeMon said he wasn’t necessarily positive he would get a successful outcome regarding the special arrangement considering the numerous demands on Mr. Wilberg’s time.

But Mr. Wilberg said he knew how much the arrangement meant to Mr. LeMon after meeting with him face-to-face in Salt Lake City, Utah. He didn’t hesitate, saying that he’d gladly complete the project.

“I am honored to play a role in celebrating the life and influence of one so important and revered at Calvary Baptist Church,” Mr. Wilberg said.

Mr. LeMon said the best thing about it all is that anyone that picks up the sheet music for the church’s new arrangement of “It Is Well With My Soul” around the world will see a dedication to its pastor on top of the music.

It reads, “Commissioned in loving memory of the 34 years of faithful service of Apostle Rev. Dr. Richard M. Avant by the Combined Choir of Calvary Baptist Church, Dover, Delaware

Dion LeMon, Director of Music

Henry A. Greene, Minister of Music”

Chance for a
congregation to heal

Bridget Avant, the pastor’s wife, said the hymn had extra meaning for Mr. Avant after he faced mounting medical issues in recent years.

However, despite his declining health, Mrs. Avant said her husband would always tell people, “It is well,” when asked about how he was feeling.

Mrs. Avant, who sings in the choir, is sure she will be overcome with emotions when they perform the song on Saturday night. However, she said she respects what the church is doing in honor of her husband.

Mack Wilberg (left), director of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir, met with Calvary Baptist Church’s Director of Music Dion LeMon and agreed to create a special arrangement of the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” in honor of the church’s late pastor. (Delaware State News/Submitted photo)

“I think this is beautiful,” she said. “It’s awesome that they thought so much of him to do this special thing for him.

“I’m very much honored. Now we can kind of start off the new year fresh. This is kind of like a closing for the church … and a time to move forward.”

Levette Rawls of Dover is a member of Calvary’s congregation. She said she can’t think of a more fitting tribute to the late pastor than to have his favorite song performed in his memory.

“I actually think it’s phenomenal,” Ms. Rawls said. “For somebody to be able to write a song and dedicate it to our pastor it’s great. He was loved by all. There’s not a person who had anything bad to say about him.

“He gave so much to so many people and also brought a lot of the community together as well. Now we’ll be able to get a little bit of closure through a song that he loved so much.”

An extra special
Christmas Cantata

Henry Greene, the minister of music at Calvary, said the Christmas Cantata is always a special event at the church. However, this year it will have even more meaning,

“(Mr. Wilberg) wrote that just for our choir, so we’re very honored,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s ever been arranged with orchestra — we’ve got the full orchestration with the harp and everything — and it’s different.

“We invited the whole community and I believe there are five other churches that are coming out to participate with us.”

Mr. LeMon said Calvary’s choir has about 55 members, but on Saturday night about 90 people will be coming together to sing “It Is Well With My Soul” in honor of the church’s late pastor.

“It’s going to be a fantastic experience,” he said. “We had a rehearsal (Monday night) and it was pretty touching to hear everyone coming together. We have groups coming from different churches, which is a great blessing, because our pastor was a statesman to the entire community.

“We have someone coming from Holy Cross who is playing the organ, we have some other singers coming from Milford and other areas, and it’s just a blessing for us all to come together and to show our love and support of our pastor.”

Mr. LeMon added that the arrangement was especially important to him personally.

“We lost our pastor and our shepherd for over 30 years and that was my spiritual father,” he said. “This man was for me in and in my corner when other people weren’t there … so I had to do this.”

The contribution made by Mr. Wilberg is immense, Mr. LeMon added, because “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is as close to being able to hear angels sing as you’re going to get on Earth.”

“It Is Well With My Soul” will be performed during the second half of Saturday night’s program. Mr. LeMon implores people to get to the church’s auditorium early because it is always a popular event that packs the pews.

“You’re going to hear some traditional gospel music and we’re going to be doing several classical pieces,” he said. “I’m a stickler about classical music so I want to make sure it’s represented well and we’ll have some contemporary Christian music.”

However, on a night that his church will be celebrating the birth of Jesus, Mr. LeMon is especially looking forward to hearing one non-traditional Christmas song.

Then, just maybe, it will finally be well for the members of Calvary Baptist Church, just like it was for Apostle Avant.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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