With a woman who wears as many hats as Patrinell “Pat” Wright, it’s tough to pick the one that best describes her. She’s an award-winning gospel singer, a choir leader, a pastor and an activist who has been recognized many times over in each of these categories throughout her life. But all of the hats she wears are stitched with a common thread. Her phrase for it is “to aid and assist.”
That thread brought her to Seattle from Texas in 1964, to help her recently divorced sister. “My parents taught us to take care of each other,” she explains, and helping others — to develop their musical talents, to rebuild a home, to know God — has been at the core of her long and fruitful life.
The middle child of eight, Pastor Wright was supposed to be named Cleopatra, she says, and “how they came up with Patrinell is anybody’s guess.” Growing up in small-town Carthage, Texas, she says that her Baptist preacher father became her lifelong hero. “When I was born it was really rough for black people,” she says. “I saw him go through so much and I’m so glad I was young enough to be born then but old enough in my spirit to remember a lot of that stuff. He taught me to be strong and to endure.”
As a child she took to music early, singing her first solo at age three, and later taught herself piano in order to lead choirs in her father’s church. In the classroom she excelled as well, perhaps due to the influence of her schoolteacher mother. She graduated as valedictorian from her high school class, and attended college in Texas.
She came to Seattle to help her sister, but marriage to the Rev. Benny Wright only six months later sealed the deal with her newly adopted city. By the time her son was born in 1970, she was employed by the Seattle schools directing choirs at Franklin and Roosevelt High Schools. There she refined her skill for nurturing the musical talent in others, and when a school levy failure resulted in her being laid off from the district, those high school choirs formed the basis of the Total Experience Gospel Choir. How did the TEGC get its name? “It just popped in my head during rehearsal one night,” says Pat. Maybe so, but the name does reflect the tremendous diversity of the present choir — in age (six to sixty), in race, even in physical ability.
It also reflects the fact that the Total Experience is more than a gospel choir. “Sometimes gospel is not appropriate for an event,” explains Pastor Wright. “We have a full repertoire — we can sing from opera to gospel. But it doesn’t matter what kind of music I sing, you can still tell I’m a gospel singer by the way I sing it. And that’s with heart.”
The Total Experience Gospel Choir has evolved into a unique ministry over the years, bringing its music and message of hope and faith to four continents and 22 countries. In the process the choir has sung with everyone from Quincy Jones to Steely Dan, from Sweet Honey in the Rock to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The choir has won more than 150 awards statewide, nationally and internationally. It has even been a cradle for three eventual American Idol contestants.
And yet when asked which award means the most to her, Pastor Wright says it is “not one you can see.” Instead, she tells the story of the choir’s first trip outside the United States in 1986 when she knew that the ministry would be an international one. “We were given the title of goodwill ambassadors to Nicaragua,” she explains. On their way to Nicaragua they sang in Mexico and El Salvador without incident. But when they got to Nicaragua, “everything was completely in an uproar and we watched an airplane being shot down out of the air! It fell right within I guess a half a mile in front of us.” This experience shifted something inside her, making her aware of “how vast the world is,” she says. “I never thought I’d be traveling worldwide, and now I’ve been all around the world. That’s the greatest gift — the gift of openness and enlightenment.”
It seems that everywhere Pastor Wright looks, an opportunity to “aid and assist” looks back. She adopted her second child, a daughter, from the choir, and speaks of at least one “play godson” who has adopted her as his mom. In 1997 she cofounded a church to minister to those hardest hit by life’s challenges. Due to increasing rent, the Oneness Christian Center recently had to close, but Pastor Wright is typically philosophical about that. “It really broke my heart to shut the doors of my church, but then I thought, well these are just four walls, and I’ve never been one of those people who could be contained nor confined to four walls. We’ve been using those Sunday mornings to connect with other churches. This is just another step in my ministry.”
Hearing about the choir’s travels makes you wonder about their audition process — whether knowing your way around a hammer or a soup pot means as much as how many octaves you can sing. The choir had been doing relief work in hurricane-struck countries even before Katrina hit New Orleans. But the temporary disappearance of one of her choir members in the aftermath of Katrina has especially involved Pastor Wright in that particular disaster. “That was the best call we had ever received — that she and her brother were OK, and grandma and grandpa were OK,” says Pat. “When she came back to the choir I told the choir, we have no choice; that’s our next mission. So we’ve been going headstrong since January of 2006.”
When I interviewed Pat she was preparing to return to Mississippi, to help rebuild the home of a family there. It was to be her fourth mission to the Katrina-ravaged area, the third time for those choir members who are going with her. “Whoever can rearrange their life to match my pace,” she says with a laugh. They will work and they will sing, and through their efforts and the funds they have raised, one family will move from their FEMA trailer back to their home.
This tireless service ethic has not gone unnoticed. In December of 2007, ABC News recognized Pat Wright as one of three Persons of the Year. “I never wanted to be one of those choirs where you just go from church to church to church to sing,” she told them at the time. “I wanted to conquer the world with what we did.” Conquer the world they have, through Christian service and the joy of gospel music. And yet this latest chapter in her ministry almost never happened because of a health crisis that Pastor Wright has (typically) turned into an opportunity to serve — this time as the 2008 “Go Red for Women” ambassador for the American Heart Association.
Early in the spring of 2001, Pat suffered cardiac arrest in church. Doctors said her heart had stopped for nine minutes, so she feels that she has already died once. “Since I don’t know when the second end will strike I try to live each day to the fullest,” she says. “I take a little time for myself, just a little, not a lot, and I try to do as much as I can for all I can while I can.” Two days after the cardiac arrest she got a pacemaker that she calls Patrick, “the same as my son, because I carry him in my heart.” Soon Patrick the Pacemaker’s battery will run out, hopefully not before Pastor Wright has surgery to have it replaced. “So you don’t know,” she says cheerfully. “You may not wake up.”
In the meantime, she marks the anniversaries — of her heart attack, of getting her pacemaker. And she’s not embarrassed to comment on the meaning of life. “Life is a tremendous gift from the maker; the maker being God,” she says. “He allows us every day to get a brand-new piece of paper and a brand-new fine-tuned pen or pencil. And life is what we write on the paper with our words and deeds. At the close of the days as we close our eyes and sleep we can’t go and redo anything we’ve done that day. But you get another chance the next day that you awaken — to rewrite something else on the next clean sheet of paper with the next fine-tuned pen or pencil.”
Even though her “four walls” church is closed, I think Pat’s main “hat” is still that of pastor, which comes from the Latin word for shepherd. If we were privy to the words and deeds written on her daily pages, I imagine some simple themes would emerge. Be strong and endure. Help others. And while most of us may not be able to match Pastor Pat’s energetic pace, we draw inspiration from her beloved gospel music, which she’ll continue to sing, with heart.
©2008 Caliope Publishing Company
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