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GARY — One by one they file in — a congregation of friends whose hugs, greetings and laughter fill the main room of First A.M.E. Church.

Then the organ seeps in gently, cutting through the mix like a knife through butter. The notes and reverberation sound out like a heartbeat, calling the gospel group to order.

Thus begins another Monday night rehearsal with the Voices of Love.

"I've always loved to sing," said Carol Blakemore, of Merrillville, an alto in the group. "This group is different because of the passion that we sing with. It has changed me. I'm more open, loving, forgiving and understanding because of the songs we sing. It's uplifting, it's a release, it's cathartic."

The group comes together in a mesh of song and prayer. The different pieces of the choir, altos, tenors, sopranos, basses and instruments, vibrate and swell in melody and rhythm.

"When we pray in a group, there is power in a congregation," Blakemore said. "We love each other. In the group we hug before we start, we hug after and we send showers of prayer down."

The Voices of Love blossomed out of a workshop titled "Where is the Love?" Patrice Mack, who is originally from Gary, returned in 2011 to the Region after living in Newport News, Virginia, and led the workshop. The workshop drew in about 50 people, according to Mack. After the final performance at the workshop's end, the group received more requests to perform, including for Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's inauguration in 2012, Mack said.

The group's members not only find solace in the songs, but also in moments where they speak what's on their minds. At moments in their service, they may share details of hardships they or family members are experiencing, requesting the group's prayer and energy for good luck.

"You have people coming to church or coming to different functions with things on their mind," said Chris Sims, of Gary, Voices of Love music director. "They want to hear some gospel music. We can cater to them through our music and maybe uplift their day as they go along for the next week."

Smiles and laughter are abound as the group belts out the verses and refrains. Songs, in the gospel style, are based off of scripture passages. Musically, they involve the organ, piano, guitar, bass and drums — and the enthusiastic stomping or hand clapping from the singers.

"You lose yourself in the song," Blakemore said. "When you sing it and you just let yourself go, you can't even explain the feeling that you get because you are outside of yourself."

Outside of its routine Monday rehearsals, the group also will perform at various concerts throughout Chicagoland. Locally, the Voices of Love have played at Gospel Fest in Crown Point and W.O.W. Fest in East Chicago, for example.

"Wherever we've gone, most people say our choir is annointed," Blakemore said. "They feel they can look at us and tell that we feel what we are singing."

More so then just enjoying the music is understanding the messages weaved into the lyrics — an important point Mack said she made in the group's original 2011 workshop.

"I just wanted to do something different in the area that would increase the knowledge why people sing," Mack said. "It’s supposed to be because you love God and give His praise that people that can relate to."

Individual members also feel their spirituality and souls have grown by participating in the music.

"When you go to church, you go in one way and you want to come out another," Chris Sims said. "That's the way of feeling better. There has been a big change not only in me, but I can tell it in the other musicians. It's a big change for everybody just for the better."

Gene Johnson, of Gary, bass in the Voices of Love, said Monday rehearsals are opportunities he wouldn't want to miss. Johnson spent time in his past as a high school football coach and said Monday and Friday night football were part of his schedule.

"If someone asks me what I'm going to be doing on a Monday night, I'm going to be with Voices of Love practicing," Johnson said. "I can't think of any other place I'd love to be. I hope it causes me to behave a little better than I have behaved. There was a time in my life that I might not have been able to say that. But singing his praise has made a world of difference in my life."

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Digital producer

Kale is a digital producer with the Times. He is a Region native, hailing from Schererville. He writes feature stories, shoots photos, and produces Byline, a Times podcast. He is a graduate of Indiana University.