OREM — Debra Bonner found gospel music when she was 13 while singing in a Baptist gospel choir in Flint, Michigan.
Since that formative moment, she has achieved a lengthy list of accomplishments in the musical world. After graduating with her master’s degree in vocal performance from the University of Michigan, Bonner worked with Seth Riggs, a celebrated vocal coach who taught greats like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. Thirty years ago, she opened her own vocal studio in Provo and has seen it thrive. And, with her eight musical children, she has released an original composition on the Mormon Channel.
Despite this impressive list, Bonner’s greatest satisfaction has come through directing the Utah-based Unity Gospel Choir, a diverse group of mostly Latter-day Saint gospel singers whose goal, according to the choir's website, is “to bring unity, hope and love to all of God’s children.”
“It’s through gospel music that I came to know the Savior — to know him personally,” Bonner said in a recent interview with the Deseret News.
“In gospel music, the music is all about the Savior — it’s about how much we love him, appreciate him, who he is to us (and) what he does for us.”
The choir performs its third annual Christmas concert, “A Soulful Christmas,” on Nov. 30 with special guests Loren Allred from “The Greatest Showman,” Jenny Oaks Baker and the Bonner Family at UCCU Event Center in Orem.
Although now known as the Unity Gospel Choir, most people better know the choir by their former name, the Genesis Gospel Choir, which was born with the formation of the Genesis Group in 1971. The Genesis Group is a church unit formed by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an effort to better serve the needs of the church's African-American members.
Shortly after chuch leadership appointed Bonner as the leader of the Genesis Gospel Choir four years ago, it became clear to her that their performances were extending far beyond Genesis Group meetings on the first Sunday of every month.
"Before I was the choir director, there were 50 to 75 people every first Sunday, now it's about 400," Bonner said.
With their popularity exploding and their reach widening, church leaders released Bonner and the members of the choir from their callings but wanted them to continue performing and sharing church teachings through their music. With that, the choir transitioned into a nonprofit independent organization known as the Unity Gospel Choir International, with Bonner at the helm.
“We are no longer a Genesis choir because people were wanting us to sing all over the state," Bonner said. "… The Brethren released us (but) wanted us to continue what we were doing and helped us out with a donation so we (can continue to perform).”
Since then, the Unity Gospel Choir has performed across the state, including recently at the Sutherland Institute Gala where singer Loren Allred was also performing. Bonner knew she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet Allred, the voice behind “The Greatest Showman’s” hit song “Never Enough,” and ask her to perform at “A Soulful Christmas.”
“We were able to meet her and she loved the choir,” Bonner said. “When we asked her management, she said, ‘I want to do this!’ and she was very excited.”
While Allred, Jenny Oaks Baker and the Bonner Family will headline the second half of the performance, the first half of the concert is dedicated to the choir and will be entirely Christ-based.
“I’m most excited about having a come to Jesus moment,” Bonner said. “We are going to sing a couple songs from the 'Messiah' with a gospel twist and then we are going to sing some gospel music that speaks of the Savior and our love for him. The audience will participate with us and sing with us. It will be a very simple, healing moment.”
This healing power inherent in gospel music is precisely why Bonner is passionate about the choir — it has the potential, in her words, to “penetrate to the soul.”
“People who have (come into the choir) broken, those who have had addictions, those who have had depression, (no longer have those problems) because the music itself is about the Savior — the music and spirit is very strong.”
If you go …
What: "A Soulful Christmas" concert
When: Friday, Nov. 30, 7 p.m.
Where: UCCU Event Center, 800 W. University Parkway, Orem
How much: $15-$50