From the time I was 16, in 1942, God anointed me to sing for His glory. I had been singing before that time, but that’s when I began what some might call a career of singing for the Lord.
Dr. Charles Walkem was one of my musical mentors, especially during my years singing at Angelus Temple. He was an accomplished musician and songwriter who helped Aimee Semple McPherson transcribe the many songs, hymns and oratorios she composed. In fact, Dr. Walkem was the person Sister would call anytime, day or night, knowing that he could listen to her hum a tune that God had given her and then transcribe it so others could sing or play it.
The man was an amazing musician, and I owe most of my memories singing at Angelus Temple to Dr. Walkem’s influence. As I teenager, I was asked to sing the role of the angel Gabriel in Sister’s Christmas oratorio, “The Bells of Bethlehem.” Gabriel is sort of the “announcer” of the story because he made all these proclamations to Mary, Joseph and Elisabeth. Besides, I got to use the tenor voice God gave me for His glory. I sang the part of Gabriel every year at Christmas until I turned 55, and today I think I could still do it without missing a line.
Once a month or so, Sister would preach an illustrated sermon on Sunday nights complete with Hollywood-quality sets, costumes and props. I participated in many of the musical sermons with parts ranging from the prince in Sister’s version of Sleeping Beauty to Lazarus, in the biblical account of Lazarus and the rich man.
Sister’s productions offered me an opportunity to use my singing voice for the Lord, and I will be forever grateful. I always felt a kinship with her in ministry, believing that every word I sang was part of the message of the gospel, and that it should be presented with as much precision and beauty as possible. The mantle of anointing that Sister carried for preaching the gospel inspired me in my life as a singer.
From the beginning of my career, I was aware of the awesome responsibility that accompanied the gift I enjoyed. I sang at Billy Graham crusades and in meetings around the world, sometimes at gatherings where I also spoke.
Once, in Japan, just before taking the platform, I became overwhelmed by the presence of God and His love for me. The power of God was so real, I wondered if I would be able to sing. The Lord gave me a vision depicting Jesus on the cross. Amidst His suffering, Jesus smiled at me. It was nearly more than I could bear, and I broke down from the emotion. “I want you on the cross with Me,” Jesus said to me. His eyes drew me near and I thought of Galatians 2:20: “ I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (NKJV).
My experience in Japan was not the first time I had such an encounter with Christ. When I was 16, at a Foursquare youth camp, I had a vision of Jesus while the campers partook of communion together. This time, I saw a huge ramp full of brown-skinned people reaching out for the Lord. Years later, when I sang in the Philippines, the Holy Spirit brought that vision to my remembrance. “These are the people I showed you,” the Lord spoke to me. “These are people I love and died for.”
Yes, Sister and I shared a similar call to ministry; her, through preaching, and me, through singing. Unfortunately, she was taken from us much too early, in my opinion. I will never forget the day she passed.
Dr. Walkem and I made the long drive from Los Angeles to Oakland, Calif., where Sister was scheduled to speak for a series of meetings, and I had been asked to be the soloist. Our trip was anything but smooth, with ruts and narrow roads. Finally, we arrived at our hotel in Oakland and got ready for the evening service.
As I prayed about what I should sing, I ran through a host of songs that I typically sang. None of them were right for this particular service. I settled on one of Sister’s hymns that included the lyrics, “Together with Christ my Savior on that great shore.” The song offered hope of eternal joy and rest with the Lord, but I didn’t realize the depth of significance the song held when I selected it. After the service, Sister seemed pleased with the response of the people, and we all went our separate ways, her to her hotel, and Dr. Walkem and me to ours.
Sister’s son, Rolf, called us the following morning to say that Sister had died during the night. I had just shared the platform with her the night before, and she had preached with all her heart. We were stunned.
For the burial at Forest Lawn, I sang “Take My Life and Let It Be” with a gospel quartet, and our full choir sang, accompanied by Mrs. Steward on the Angelus Temple Hammond organ. The organ had been trucked to the hillside just above Sister’s gravesite and was plugged into a power generator.
Sister’s productions offered me an opportunity to use my singing voice for the Lord, and I will be forever grateful. I always felt a kinship with her in ministry, believing that every word I sang was part of the message of the gospel, and that it should be presented with as much precision and beauty as possible.
Mrs. Steward quickly realized the pitch of the organ running on a generator was different than when it was plugged into a regular power source at the Temple. No problem for Mrs. Steward. She simply transposed the choir’s selection as she played the organ, thereby allowing those of us in the choir to sing in the key in which we had rehearsed.
When I first started out in ministry, Sister told me, “Norm, don’t take your talent to Hollywood. You’ll lose out if you do.” She knew of what she spoke. Cecil B. DeMille had offered her $1 million to produce the story of her life. She turned him down, and I think because she did, she was able to draw closer to her Savior. She had wonderful companionship with Christ, and I always admired how she honored the Lord with her life and in her ministry.