On a recent Wednesday evening, a half-dozen members of the gospel group Adoration gathered at the home of its founder Otis Byrd Jr.
For nearly two hours, they oohhed and aahhed through vocal exercises before launching into “Hosanna,” “I Need You” and “Glory and Honor” and then spilling out into the night.
In less than 24 hours, the 33-year-old was at it again. This time across town at Antioch Baptist Church North, where he and nearly 100 choir members, some more than twice his age, had gathered for another Thursday night of rehearsal behind a vacant pulpit.
“All right. Everybody, together,” he says.
“And sinners plugged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stain …”
“Don’t make a project out of that, sopranos.”
In the years since his father was brutally murdered in his home, it would’ve been easy for Otis Byrd Jr. to make a project out of his grief. Instead, he has stepped up to the fine line separating despair and hope and crossed it.
The crossing hasn’t been easy.
Besides bearing his father’s name, Otis Byrd Jr. had long shared his father’s passion for family, for music, and for ministry. It would be hard to continue in any of it, without remembering what he had lost. If he walked the Morehouse College campus, where he and his father sang in the Glee Club, his father was there. If he recalled starting Adoration, his father was there. If he directed Antioch in another concert, Otis Sr. was near the rear in the middle row of pews, his chest rising and falling with pride.
“He was definitely one of my biggest and most consistent supporters,” he said recently of his father.
Now like an uninvited guest, trouble had come knocking. It was Jan. 5, 2014, the first Sunday of a brand-new year. A prayer in the back of the church bulletin that day seemed to foreshadow what lay ahead:
“May God make your year a happy one
Not by shielding you from all sorrows and pain,
But by strengthening you to bear it, as it comes;”
That day, Otis Jr. had brought the Antioch Baptist Church North M.A.D.D. for Christ Youth Choir to a rousing crescendo and taken his seat when a church usher got his attention and led him to an empty room.
He was met there by a deacon from nearby Lindsay Street Baptist Church who then left to summon Antioch’s co-pastor Kenneth Alexander.
Byrd’s mind was racing.
His father, the Rev. Otis Byrd Sr., had suffered a stroke two years earlier. Maybe he’d had another.
When the deacon returned with Alexander, the news was bad.
Otis’ father, a Morehouse man and pastor of God’s Anointed Missionary Baptist Church, hadn’t shown up to church. They had found him earlier that morning stabbed to death on the floor of his Finley Avenue home.
He had lived just 50 years, and though he was a beloved pastor and a talented tenor who recorded with the Georgia Mass Choir and sang with the Atlanta Chapter of Gospel Music Workshop of America, he hadn’t forgotten the important things. He laughed. And he loved his children. Ashley because he was the first born. Amber because she was the only girl. Jordan because he was the youngest. And Otis Jr. because he was his namesake.
The news was devastating.
Otis cried and then he did what his faith required and what the Gospel he’d spent the morning, indeed nearly his entire life, testifying to in song demanded: to be strong and of a good courage.
It was the one thing he’d learned well, watching his father navigate this life.
“As anyone does, my dad had his trials and triumphs, yet he never allowed either to stop him from serving, from loving, from helping others and taking his call to serve and minister to God’s people seriously,” he said recently. “If you mess up, you don’t quit or give up. You keep going, you keep trying and you keep giving God your best.”
By all accounts, Otis Jr. lives to first give God his best. The evidence is in his service to others, said Zebulon Ellis, a national recording artist who calls his friend brother.
“He’s become more than a guy who teaches parts, he’s grown into a worship leader, a man who understands how to cultivate and produce the sound that God gives him to produce, not only from him, but through others,” he said. “It’s amazing to see what he can pull out of an aggregation of singers, but because I remember when he wouldn’t touch a microphone, it’s even more gratifying to see him in his element.”
Otis Jr. is in his element, four times a week, including Sundays when he is on duty during both the 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. worship services at Antioch, where he directs three different choirs. Twice a year — in the spring and the fall — he plans and produces a concert there. He’s there during weekly practice sessions with Adoration, the community choir he founded in his father’s church. And he was there even during the 2016-2017 academic year, when he filled a stint as musical consultant and director of the gospel choir for the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College.
He has done all of this while studying for his minister’s license, carving out time to feed the hungry and fulfilling his responsibilities to his mother and siblings, said longtime friend and singer/songwriter Darius Paulk.
“He’s still on his job, doing good,” Paulk said.
Paulk likened Otis Jr. to a fighter who’d been knocked out but who not only got back up but got up to win.
“I’d probably be somewhere on somebody’s couch, still trying to process it all,” Paulk said. “Otis, though, fought through the loss and not only maintained, he thrived.”
In February, he marked 10 years of service at Antioch, recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of Adoration, and in June was licensed to preach, milestones that arrived at an especially trying time, marked by uncertainty and apprehension.
Sometime in early February, after nearly three years of legal wrangling, he learned Toney Lee Wiley, the man charged with murder in his father’s death, was finally going to stand trial.
“It was unnerving just because we knew it would be going to a trial and, of course, none of us wanted to go through that,” Otis said.
After a week of testimony, a jury found Wiley guilty of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced him to 20 years in prison.
“Even though seeing the pictures and hearing the details, both facts and lies, was hard, it gave us closure,” Otis said. “It’s one thing to lose a family member to sickness, but when someone else is responsible for their death, you can’t help wondering if justice will be served.”
He’s glad it’s over, but not even a prison sentence can fully heal the pain of losing his father.
“We’re getting there,” he said of his family. “We’re now trying to figure out how to live fully and keep God first in all things because that’s what he would want us to do. It’s really the only way to honor his life.”
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