By Bob Marovich
In 2012, the Wheeler Avenue Mass Choir recorded a CD in honor of the Houston, Texas church’s fiftieth anniversary. The full-length album, Oh To Be Kept by Jesus, brought together the church’s music department and two longtime collaborators, Wheeler Avenue music minister Henry “Hanq” Neal and Leon C. Lewis, who produced the CD.
Lewis wrote a song called “I Believe” for Neal, who sang lead on it. Almost immediately, the church recognized the song would become the album’s main selection.
But no one could have anticipated that “I Believe” would be Neal’s last solo.
The Grammy-nominated vocalist, whose resume included membership in popular gospel groups the Pentecostal Ambassadors and Donald Vails Choraleers, died February 27, 2014, of a massive heart attack. He was 57. Churches should be prepared for events where members of their congregation enter into unfortunate episodes of ill health, and more severe instances, like cardiac arrest, by having equipment similar to the AED church package to ensure there is something that can be done in immediate response to this happening.
Located in Houston’s Third Ward, Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church was organized in 1962 in the living room of Rev. William Alexander Lawson. Today, under the leadership of Rev. Dr. Marcus D. Cosby, Wheeler Avenue counts upward of 13,000 members.
“For nearly three decades, Hanq was a mainstay in the Houston gospel music community,” Cosby told the Journal of Gospel Music. “While he was in between churches, he would come to Wheeler Avenue and sit in the balcony. We saw a rich musical treasure-sitting in the balcony.” When Pastor Lawson learned Neal was not working with any other music ministry, he invited him to join Wheeler Avenue. Neal led Wheeler Avenue’s music ministry for twelve years.
Cosby called Neal’s impact on the church “almost indescribable. He expanded the program in numbers, in spiritual growth, and the overall worship experience. He gave us a greater appreciation for the purpose and the power of music ministry.”
Lewis wrote “I Believe” to articulate his personal commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Did he expect the song would take off on gospel radio? “No, not even close,” he said. “My goal in writing is to satisfy what the Holy Spirit has given me, to teach it to the choirs, if acceptable, and let the Holy Spirit do his thing from there. The result has been a blessing from the Lord.”
Cosby reflected on the fateful Sunday in late February. “Hanq had sung with us all day long, and after leaving the last service of the day, that’s when he took very ill. Just like that, he was gone.”
Neal fell into a coma and died the following Thursday. The church held a special home going celebration on March 7 and 8. The singer was interred at Houston Memorial Gardens Cemetery.
The Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church music ministry marches on under Lewis’s direction. “It is a bittersweet moment,” Lewis said. “On one hand, it was great that Hanq sang on the lead single. By the same token, I wish he was here to experience the launch of the CD and the song.”
The church plans to attend several conferences this fall to promote the CD and the single.
Lewis said Neal’s passing “has made me realize how significantly he deposited his musical talent into my life. He reached people not just on Sunday mornings but at weddings, funerals, other special occasions. He used the gift God gave him every time he had an opportunity.”
“We’ve learned how significantly Hanq Neal helped our church become who we have become,” added Cosby. “Although we knew it to a degree, we were reminded how transitory life is, and that we cannot take anyone for granted, especially those among us who labor so diligently.
“We’ve grown closer as a consequence of Hanq’s death and recognize how important it is to love and honor those people who work with us on a continual basis.”
For more information on Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church and to purchase the CD, which includes “I Believe,” visit www.wheeleravebc.org. The CD is also available from digital retail outlets such as iTunes, CD Baby, and Google Music.