Â How do you express great delight and happiness? Rejoice!Â This passionate, talented ladies trio from North Carolina exudes enthusiasm and excitement for their music and their Lord. Recognized by several organizations for their musical proficiency, Rejoice! has been nominated for awards by the Singing News, the Southern Gospel Music Association and Absolutely Gospel. After 15 years of traveling and singing, these ladies continue to inspire audiences across the country to Rejoice!.
Maria Atkins, Melissa Harding and Sherri Vestal are beautiful, blonde women of God with a contagious joy that is easily caught by those around them. Beginning as Exalt, the ladies group with Harding and Vestal won the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Ray Flynn Halloween Concert talent competition in 1997. The group name was subsequently changed to Rejoice! with Maria Atkins joining the lineup in 2003. Another change came in 2008, when Sherriâ€™s son Tyler joined to create a new sound. Now in 2012, the ladies are once again singing as a female trio and loving every minute of it.
Rejoice! has been busy in the studio in recent months, completing work on their latest project, Rejoice!…Itâ€™s Christmas!, recorded at Crossroads Music. Their current mainstream project is entitled Songs You Know by Heart, a collection of old hymns and gospel favorites. Audiences enjoy hearing these melodies from the past, redone with class in the Rejoice! style. Maria Atkins, second soprano, says, â€œMy absolute favorite [on the project] is the medley of â€œFairest Lord Jesus/Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us/â€™Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.â€ Weâ€™ve just started singing this song live and itâ€™s proving to be so powerful. I just canâ€™t get over how the Ruler of all the universe can lead me and care for me like a shepherd cares for and loves each sheep. What a mighty, loving God we put our trust in and build our lives upon. It is truly a moving collection of songs.â€
Putting his touch of perfection on many Rejoice! projects is Southern Gospel veteran producer, Roger Talley. Talley says, â€œI have enjoyed knowing and working with Rejoice! through the years.Â They are very talented singers and they always make sure their music meets a standard of excellence.Â Their sound is unique and very professional.â€
Southern Gospel radio also embraces each new Rejoice! recording. â€œI appreciate the fact that every time you see these ladies they are projecting the love of Christ with their smiles and that isÂ what Christians should be doing,â€ says Jim Foster of WSHE AM-1270 in Columbus, Georgia. â€œNow letâ€™s get to their music: Smooth blended harmony with a message. That’s Gospel Music and they present it the way it should be so as to reach the hearts of the saved and the un-saved.â€
Another long-time radio friend of Rejoice!, is Lottie Squires ofÂ WCKB 780 out of Dunn, North Carolina. This Singing News top five finalist for Favorite Medium-Market DJ is a firm supporter of Rejoice!!. â€œI first met Rejoice! way back when they were known as Exalt,â€ says Squires. â€œI’ve always appreciated their talent and the quality of their music, but over the years I’ve come to appreciate their friendship even more.Â They’ve always put their families first, so I was thrilled when Sherri’s son, Tyler, became part of the group. I’m so very proud of him. And I can hardly wait to get our annual NQC picture this September.â€
Family is central to the ministry of Rejoice! and the ladies have been thrilled to have the contributions of Tyler Vestal, Sherriâ€™s son, for the last several years. Tyler left the group in February to join the trio Freedom and Atkins shares what this member has meant to Rejoice!. â€œWe have watched him grow so much and he is musically gifted. He is a wonderful singer and plays the piano like crazy. Every week he would get in the van and tell us some new little move or chord he thought of and wanted us to do. These young people are fearless! We have absolutely loved having him with us, and he has really helped us all grow in our singing and to think outside the box.â€
â€œTylerâ€™s heartâ€™s desire has always been to sing and play on a full-time basis, and he accepted a position with a fairly new menâ€™s trio called Freedom, from Sevierville, TN in February 2012,â€ continues Atkins. â€œHe is singing the baritone part and playing the piano. Freedom is made up of Josh Garner, former lead singer with the Florida Boys, and John Rulapaugh, former tenor with Palmetto State Quartet and the Dove Brothers. Tyler loves it!Â Our loss is their gain, but we are some proud mamas. So we are a trio again, but we started out this way and we enjoy the girl group harmony.â€
Sherri Vestal, alto vocalist with Rejoice!, is proud of her son and his blossoming career in Southern Gospel. Although he is not on the road with the ladies now, he is still a part of this unique family. â€œWe joked with him all the time about his three mamas,â€ says Vestal. â€œBut he calls Maria and Melissa on the phone, texts them, and he knows if he needs someone to talk to or help him, they are there. And we are all there for all our families.Â Itâ€™s not all roses all the time, but hey, itâ€™s so good that we never want to stop traveling together.â€Â
Throughout lineup and family changes, the ladies of Rejoice! have grown musically and become like family themselves. Maria Atkins, second soprano, shares: â€œWhile itâ€™s always hard to leave [our families] for the weekend, their support means so much. My family is proud of what Rejoice! does and encourages me to keep on. Over the years, Rejoice! has become one big family, and our kids belong to all of us. We cry together and laugh together. Sometimes itâ€™s hard to tell where our personal families end and our extended families begin. Weâ€™re like one big Partridge Family â€“ without the flowery bus.â€
â€œWe have all been so blessed to have the support of our families,â€ Vestal says. â€œWe are women – wives, mothers, sisters and daughters â€“ and the road can be a difficult place. All three of us have had issues like any parent with our children at different times and there have been times when it was really tough to leave home with things going on. Maria, Melissa and my friendship runs deep and we have all adopted each otherâ€™s children.Â We have cried together and prayed together. To have the friendship with one another that we have has just made us a much larger family.â€
The Rejoice! ladies have a sisterly camaraderie that has stood them in good stead through the years of singing together. Atkins laughs, â€œSherriâ€™s always running behind so that gives me extra time to make the three hour drive to meet them, and Melissa has an uncanny ability to cry her eyes out and still sing on pitch. Iâ€™ll never know how she does it. Seriously, though, theyâ€™re my sisters and I love their devotion to Christ, which is made evident by the sweet spirits they both have.â€
All the members of Rejoice! have strong musical backgrounds, growing up in churches where they were encouraged to develop their talents. Harding and Vestal both traveled with their family gospel groups, while Atkins played the organ and piano at her fatherâ€™s church. Atkins shares, â€œWeâ€™ve all sung for as long as we can remember. I think I first sang in front of a crowd when I was about four or five years old. I sang, â€˜Pass it Onâ€™. I can still remember imagining a giant, raging fire because of one little spark. I didnâ€™t get it at the time â€“ I really thought it was all about fire, but later I understood the power of that little spark and that sweet little song. That one little spark of Godâ€™s love makes you want to â€˜pass it onâ€™.â€
Rejoice! has been passing their faith along for several years and like many groups, the ladies began by doing all of the un-glamorous work by themselves. â€œSherriâ€™s husband, Mark, travels with us full time now,â€ says Harding, â€œBut for the first eleven years of our group existence, just us three girls traveled together. We drove the van, loaded in the equipment, set it up, ran our own sound, tore it down, loaded it back in the trailer and drove on to the next stop.Â Sherri is actually the only one of us that can back the trailer and she learned pretty much out of necessity.â€
The look back into Rejoice! history also makes Vestal chuckle. â€œWe did have such a funny incident a few years ago. We had a flat tire on the trailer, and AAA doesnâ€™t cover it if itâ€™s not on your actual vehicle.Â So, of course it was raining, and we were all dolled up to go sing, and here we are with a flat tire on the trailer.Â Many details are unnecessary, but long story short, we learned a valuable lesson in tire-changing that day.Â No matter how strong you are, or how many of us tried to hold the tire still, you can not loosen the lug nuts after the tire is jacked up and off the ground. It just wonâ€™t work!â€
The passing of years has also given these ladies a perspective on the changes that have occurred in the Southern Gospel industry. â€œSocial Media has changed the face of Gospel music tremendously,â€ says Atkins. â€œItâ€™s unbelievable how many connections can be made with people youâ€™ve never met in person. When someone purchases your music from across an ocean, thatâ€™s just incredible. Now, more than ever before, gospel musicians have the ability to reach so many more people with this music and to share Jesus with them. It means we can never let up, not even a little.â€
â€œNever letting upâ€ is part of the longevity of Rejoice! who have determined to keep on sharing their faith. They recognize this quality in others, whether itâ€™s in those who share their calling to Christian music or outside the industry. â€œThere are so many heroes who have paved the way and persevered through tough times to keep gospel music alive,â€ says Atkins. â€œThis is not an easy industry and most canâ€™t be accused of doing it for the money. So it takes a real love for people and a real desire to see peopleâ€™s lives changed to continue on this journey.â€
Reflecting on her heroes, Atkins continues, â€œOutside of the industry, Iâ€™ve been so impressed with Tim Tebow lately. Iâ€™m always so proud of how he stays the course and keeps his faith in a very public way even when it might not be the popular thing to do as an athlete. I pray that God continues to bless him and that he will remain an inspiration to many.â€
Rejoice! shares that desire to stay the course. When asked about her personal desire for the group, Atkins says, â€œThat we will always be obedient to Godâ€™s call on our lives and that we will submit our own hopes to His will. Thatâ€™s not always easy because thereâ€™s plenty we want to do. Sherri always says sheâ€™s had lots of good plans for God to work out, but He has a perfect plan and it will be in His perfect time.Â We are so blessed that He allows us to do what we love to do and at the same time, lives can be changed.Â My greatest desire is that He will allow us to be used in places where many who still do not know of this Savior yet and are searching for hope can turn their lives over to Him.Â What an incredible use of our time here on earth. I can think of nothing greater!â€
Atkins continues, â€œI want to always be forward thinking, yet obedient to God in the moment. I believe that we each have gifts that He puts to use and ideas that He puts on our minds and hearts.Â I want to always be receptive to Godâ€™s voice and to always be bold enough to share with the others what has been placed within my heart.Â Having seen God completely change the heart of a teenager in the last few weeks has made me hunger to see more people realize the love that God has for them, no matter what theyâ€™ve done or where theyâ€™ve been.Â Itâ€™s awesome to be reminded of Godâ€™s changing power and I want us to be willing vessels for Him to use in ways that He sees fit. I want to know that through our ministry, people are coming to know Him on a personal level.â€
â€œIt has always been my desire to encourage and inspire people,â€ states Vestal. â€œI want people to feel better about themselves and know that they are loved. There are so many people who are unhappy or feel unwanted and they beat themselves up for things they have done in their lives. They feel like God canâ€™t or wonâ€™t forgive them for how far they have wandered from Him. I have been that person, too. But God is waiting for all of us with His arms outstretched. It doesnâ€™t matter who you are, it doesnâ€™t matter where youâ€™ve been. We come to Him just as we are. There is infinite mercy, grace and peace through Jesus that this world does not offer.â€
Pastors who invite Rejoice! into their church agree that the desires of Rejoice! are being met through the ministry of this inspired group. Rev. Chris King, Pastor of East Vernon Baptist Church in LaGrange, Georgia, shares: â€œI have had the privilege of working with Rejoice! many times through the years and the one thing that stands out the most is that when they come to sing, God’s special anointing is always on them. I have worked with Rejoice! in many different contexts and locations and in every case, without exception, they have allowed God to work through them to reach the audience in ways beyond description. Their ministry will reach out and touch young, old, and everyone in between. When the concert is over, Rejoice! will make you feel like you were the ones who blessed them! They are as genuine and God-loving as anyone, and I would recommend Rejoice! as freely as I would anyone else in the business!â€
Rejoice! is indebted to the many friends, supporters and promoters that they have met along the way. If for some reason they were unable to continue their ministry, Atkins says that it is the relationships they would miss the most. â€œI would miss the connections to all the very real people that we meet along the way. Iâ€™m always reminded that in every town we visit, people are struggling, people are rejoicing, people are searching for answers and people are growing in the Lord.Â Sometimes we get caught up in the vacuum of life as we know it and being out there sharing keeps us aware of the reason we do what we do.â€
Atkins continues, â€œIâ€™m so thankful that we get to do what we love to do and that God can continue to use us to bless others.Â Iâ€™m thankful that our families support us in our ministry and Iâ€™m thankful for each member.â€
What is important to Rejoice! at this stage of their careers in Southern Gospel? For Atkins, the answer is simple. â€œNow is the time to share the message of salvation in every possible situation in our lives. Itâ€™s easy to do when weâ€™re on the stage, but we should never forget at any time to minister. There are so many people who need hear the gospel and we should be continuously looking for those opportunities.â€
Enthusiasm, thankfulness and the will to persevere, combined with their infectious love for Christ and passion to reach others with His love, are attributes that have propelled Rejoice! along their ministry path for over fifteen years. With that foundation, these ladies will enjoy many more years of leading others into expressions of great joy and happiness.
For more information on Rejoice!: www.rejoiceonline.org.
For the Rejoice! interview with SGN Scoops at the 2011 National Quartet Convention: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_Y3ZhVV6aw
Rejoice! feature first published June 2012 in SGN ScoopsÂ http://www.sgnscoops.com/