The group's 2010 report to the IRS listed about $200,000 each in income and expenses, and Whitman says the budget is above $300,000 now. But he wants to get to $1 million, a place where the fees the group commands are higher, and finding travel money is less stressful.
Financially, "we're O.K.," he says. "We're not great, but we're O.K. I want to move into this place where this is great."
But for all the importance of the worldly, spirituality remains at the essence of the group, as well. "I just love how we worship and how it's connected to God," says singer Kyshawn Carpenter, 14, of the South Side. "And it's just a release to mesh with the other people."
Before they take the stage at the International Faith Conference of Bill Winston Ministries and the Living Word Christian Center, which own and occupy the back half, roughly, of Forest Park Plaza; before they sit in rows with bibles open in front of them just ahead of entering the sanctuary; before they deliver a performance that takes the group back to its roots, with Whitman becoming more preacher than leader and primary vocalist; before all of that, the Soul Children rehearse with Whitman in a back room.
There is some singing, tightening things up, warming up the vocal cords, making sure the new members are up to snuff. Then he delivers the devotion, a regular, pre-singing ritual — but this is an extraordinary performance, part pep talk, part call-and-response psalm reading and interpretation, part group therapy. A taste of it:
"Listen to yourself impacting nations. Every time you say 'holy' something has to happen. I want to see that angels have to bow down. Don't come in here with no kind of attitude, no kind of drama. Your facial expression, your whole countenance in the presence of God, has to be right. There is a certain way that you operate. Look at somebody and smile at them. Repeat after me: 'God be merciful to us. Bless us.' This ain't no little small thing. Pastor Winston has choirs. He don't need you. He can call anybody. He don't need kids. So don't you get caught up in yourself. Everybody stay focused. That means do not allow distraction to take you off your post. That means everybody is in sync. So that means nobody messes up. Nobody. Stop right there. Stop right there. Y'all look at each other and smile. I'm still looking at some of your all pitiful faces. There's more in you than you realize. I want it to be so that when you walk in the door, they will feel your presence."
And then, before they leave the room, one of the last things Whitman tells his young charges is this:
"One more time. One more time. One more time. I don't care about you all getting tired."
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