How this diverse Utah choir is using gospel music to make the world a better place

For several years now, the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir has looked forward to performing at BYU’s annual community event celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The crowd at the Ernest L. Wilkinson Student Center was smaller this year, likely due to COVID-19, but they still responded energetically to the Christian gospel music by standing and applauding the diverse choir as they performed five numbers.

“We had a small group, but they were powerful,” Bonner said. “So I think we did our job.”

One song the choir always sings at the event is Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” because it’s so appropriate, Bonner said.

“If we want to change the world, we have to look at ourselves and make a change,” she said. “Sometimes we see people who are suffering and we pretend we don’t see them. That’s not it’s not a good thing. People are suffering, struggling, and we have to be willing to reach out.”

Debra Bonner leads the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir during BYU’s Martin Luther King Community Outreach Day.
Debra Bonner leads the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir during BYU’s Martin Luther King Community Outreach Day at the Ernest L. Wilkinson Student Center in Provo on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

The message of the song also describes what the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir is all about — a large group of performers from different religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, as well as political affiliations, who come together to sing Christian gospel music and make the world a better place. They strive to be a source of love and healing in the communities where they sing, and in the process, their lives are enriched.

“We love each other and we get along,” Bonner said. “We are sisters and brothers.”

Bonner found gospel music when she was 13 years old while singing in a Baptist gospel choir in Flint, Michigan. She went on to graduate with her master’s degree in vocal performance from the University of Michigan and said she was tutored by two of the top voice teachers in the world — Richard Miller and Seth Riggs, who taught greats such as Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.

After serving a Baptist mission in Liberia, Africa, Bonner and her husband moved to Las Vegas where they converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They raised a family of eight musical children and eventually moved to Provo where Bonner opened her own vocal studio.

In timing with Black History Month in February, the 69-year-old Bonner spoke with the Deseret News about her background in music, her talented family, how she became founder/director of the Unity Gospel Choir and its mission, and other topics.

Debra Bonner leads the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir at a 50th anniversary celebration.
Debra Bonner leads the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir at a 50th anniversary celebration for the Genesis Group at The Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: Between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month in February, what thoughts come to your mind this time of year?

Debra Bonner: It’s like Christmas. If we can just remember to love our fellow man, just love our brothers and those who struggle and are suffering, that we bear each other’s burdens and be there for each other, that’s what I think about.

Don’t just remember Black History Month. Don’t just remember the death of Martin Luther King Jr., who gave his life for his fellow man. If we could try to be like the Savior, loving our brothers, loving one another and forgiving one another, that’s truly what we need to remember. I think if people really knew the pain that we cause our brothers and sisters, if they really knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t do it. We just need to forgive and love them.

The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir sings during BYU’s Martin Luther King Community Outreach Day.
The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir sings during BYU’s Martin Luther King Community Outreach Day at the Ernest L. Wilkinson Student Center in Provo on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

DN: How did you discover your love of gospel music?

DB: There was a girl who was 13 years old at the time and I was 12. I just admired her because she was so sweet and such a good person. I wanted to be her friend. She took me to her house, which was a church, on a Sunday. That’s how I came to know Jesus was by going to church her, listening to gospel music and singing the hymns. It was through the music that I gained a testimony of the Savior. The music was just so personal, one-on-one. The sermons were great, but it was the music that penetrated those truths to my heart.

After joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nothing changed. I still knew the Savior.

DN: How did the Unity Gospel Choir get started?

DB: Eight years ago I was called to be the choir director for the Genesis Group Choir (a Latter-day Saint congregational choir). I grew up directing gospel choirs and knew the music. There was an average of 50-75 people every first Sunday.

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When we started singing the gospel music of today, it just took off. We had between 300 and 400 people. We started getting requests to perform other places, other Latter-day Saint wards, churches and businesses. We became quite popular. We were performing four to six times a month at different places.

Church leaders said they loved what we were doing. They didn’t want us to discontinue that. They said that we would be able to go places the church would not be able to go. But there was no choir like ours in the handbook. That choir was supposed to be like a ward choir. They decided to release us so we could continue doing what we were doing and gave us a little donation to keep us going a little bit.

We still continue to sing at the Genesis meetings every first Sunday.

The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir sings during BYU’s Martin Luther King Community Outreach Day.
The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir sings during BYU’s Martin Luther King Community Outreach Day at the Ernest L. Wilkinson Student Center in Provo on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

DN: Are you happy with how things have worked out?

DB: I am, I’m very happy, except it’s difficult because I’m basically sponsoring the choir and it costs at least $8,000 a month to run the choir. That’s partly because we’ve hired an excellent gospel pianist, Matthew Banks, who we fly in each week.

But our community needs him. There’s nothing like him here. People feel the spirit when they hear our choir and hear him play. So we’re just going to keep doing it until I can’t do it anymore. We have faith that if it is the Lord’s will, we’ll keep growing and lives to continue be changed.

DN: Why do people love singing in your choir?

DB: Their lives have changed. They are more spiritual. We’ve had people in the choir who have had addictions who no longer have addictions. We had people who came into the choir with depression who no longer have depression. The music itself lends to healing because it’s about the Savior Jesus Christ. It’s all about the Savior and who he is personally to us, and why we love him and what he’s done for us. That’s what gospel music is.

So if you don’t have a real personal relationship with the Savior, and you start singing about it, you begin to have a relationship, and then it begins to become real. It changes people.

DN: Last October your choir performed at the 50th anniversary of the Genesis Group. What do you remember most about that experience?

DB: How the music touched the audience. People were clapping, they gave us a standing ovation, they just jumped out of their seats at the end of some songs and applauded. This music resonates with members of this church.

Lydia Afualo sings with the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir during BYU’s Martin Luther King Community Outreach Day.
Lydia Afualo sings with the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir during BYU’s Martin Luther King Community Outreach Day at the Ernest L. Wilkinson Student Center in Provo on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

DN: You are the mother of a talented family of artists and performers. What does it mean to you to you see them displaying the same passion for music and the arts as you do?

DB: I’m grateful. I have much gratitude to my Father in heaven and my Savior Jesus Christ who gave me the gift. They gave me a way to develop my gift and so I was able to train my children at an early age. I feel like I have been given so much, and I’m grateful that my children feel the same way I do in terms of music, in terms of sharing the gospel through music about the Savior. We also have a grandchild, and we’re talking about a number of other grandchildren coming of age that may join us.

Deseret Book has asked us to write our stories so we are in the process of writing a book about the Bonner family. We are able to see how the Lord has worked in our life.

When I look at my life and my children in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and compared to my siblings, and my cousins, who loves the Lord, what a big difference. The church and the gospel of Jesus Christ has made a difference in the Bonner family.

DN: Things are a little slow for you right now during the pandemic, but what is your vision for the Unity Gospel Choir going forward?

DB: We want to build Unity Gospel Choirs all over Utah and and all over the world. We are a diverse group, multicultural and multifaith. We have a Jewish person and a Muslim in the choir. As long as you are willing to sing about the Savior, you are welcome. We don’t discriminate. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends gender and race. It’s about the spirit of the Lord and what that represents, and what that means is that we love each other.

If there are individuals who truly want to be a part of our choir family, we welcome you.

To learn more about the Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir, email her at debra@debrabonner.com or visit the website, dbunitygospelchoir.org.

The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir sings during BYU’s Martin Luther King Community Outreach Day.
The Debra Bonner Unity Gospel Choir sings during BYU’s Martin Luther King Community Outreach Day at the Ernest L. Wilkinson Student Center in Provo on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. | Mengshin Lin, Deseret News