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Pastor upholds singing legacy that began in burlesque halls


A UMNS photo by Erma Metzler.

By David Briggs*
May 8, 2009

Susan Boyle, the Scottish singer who became an overnight sensation, is 47. The Rev. Charlene Harris Allen, pastor of Walkerton United Methodist Church in northern Indiana, is 48.

Boyle says she never had a chance for stardom until she auditioned for the television show “Britain’s Got Talent.” Allen was a professional singer before losing her voice at age 18 and is only slowly working her way back to prominent stages in the United Methodist Church.

So when Boyle inspired the world and rose to instant stardom with her stereotype-shattering performance, Allen summed up her own feelings in three words on a Web posting: “You go, girl!”

“To me there is no end to our gifts. It doesn’t matter what form we are in,” Allen said in an interview. “Anytime a person uses God-given talent it is a part of God’s plan.”

The ability and desire to sing, Allen said, is a legacy passed down to her generation by generation. Her great-grandparents on her mother’s side sang in burlesque halls in the Midwest before they became Christians and settled in an evangelical Protestant church.

Her mother sang in the church choir, and Allen did as well. She would become the lead singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band, leaving the church for a while. At age 18, she lost her voice when a cyst formed in her throat, the result, she believes, of performing in smoky clubs and abusing her voice to perform rock or disco anthems.

‘God never left me’

She returned to The United Methodist Church, where she met her future husband. Her voice also returned. With the encouragement of church leaders—such as her former associate pastor, the Rev. Kaye Patton, then at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Elkhart—she would move into the spotlight at regional church meetings.

Patton, now pastor of First United Methodist in Marion, remembered watching Allen, a petite woman who walked in the shadow of her husband, blossom in her music until she would bring down the house as a soloist at annual conference.“Worship leads from her heart,” she explained. “It’s not a performance thing with her. She really sings with her heart and soul.”

Even in her brief time on the road away from church, Allen said, “I know God never left me, and down deep inside I always knew God was there for me.”

Her success ministering to people with song led her to go to seminary in her 40s. She will be ordained an elder in June.

Leading people to Christ

If there was one moment when her ministry and music all came together, it may have been at the North Indiana Annual Conference last year. The North and South Indiana conferences had voted to combine into one body and this was the last time the North Indiana Conference would be held at Purdue University in West Lafayette.

For the first time in her singing career, she did not feel butterflies in her stomach. When she sang “Upon This Rock,” Allen said she could not only feel conference members take comfort for the uncertain journey ahead, but also sensed a powerful outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

“I was being filled, like a vessel, a holy vessel,” she said. “I had a gift and I was going to share it, and no one was going to stop me.”

Susan Boyle, welcome to the world of Charlene Allen.

“A lot of folks are not given the opportunity to shine,” Allen said. “I’ve been able to let my light shine before my fellow human beings.”

*Briggs is news editor of the United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5472 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Five Fun Questions

Q: What is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to you about your singing?
A: I think, probably one of the nicest things was that they felt closer to God.

Q: What is your favorite church song?
A: “It is well with my soul.”

Q: Do you sing in the shower?
A: No, the bathtub.

Q: Who would you compare yourself to as a singer?
A: I always loved Barbra Streisand, and did her music for a while and still do. People have compared me to Barbra Streisand and Sandi Patti. I think I sound like me.

Q: What song would you choose at a karaoke party?
A: There’s a song that’s my husband and my song for a number of years. That’s Bryan Adam’s “Everything I do, I do it for you.”

Audio

The Rev. Charlene Harris Allen sings the Doxology at the Indiana Special Annual Conference, 2008

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