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THE NOVASCOTIAN: Listen to the heartbeat of North Preston

Thursday night is when the Saint Thomas church band practices, often learning an entire new song for Sunday. - Julian Abraham
Thursday night is when the Saint Thomas church band practices, often learning an entire new song for Sunday. - Julian Abraham

By Julian Abraham

On a cold night in early March, 20 men make their way into North Preston’s Saint Thomas Baptist church. Some still wear work boots. They gather at the front of the lofty room, where a red carpet snugly covers a wooden stage. At tonight’s practice they will sing as a gospel choir.

Mandy Smith switches on a recording, a lively gospel song. On a wireless mic he sings along, practicing dance moves across the stage. He’s full of energy. Everyone else, not so much – yet. But Mandy, in a loose grey hoodie, is working the stage like it’s Madison Square Garden, weaving through rows of choir members. Talking among themselves, waiting for the band to warm up, they look like they’re used to Mandy’s enthusiasm.

The church is the town hall of North Preston, a small, talented, loving community a half-hour northeast of Halifax. Sunday service is its weekly pièce de résistance. The church is a powerhouse, a support system for budding musicians, and almost literally, a family. One band member guesses 85 per cent of the people at tonight’s practice are related.

The band is all warmed up. Mandy is a gifted singer, even when tasked with a new song. He floats around the stage keeping full vocal control, and never runs out of breath.

At one point he sings “and I won’t turn around” while dancing across the stage and turning around 360 degrees, without missing a beat. Making the move smooth, he laughs out loud.   

During a pause, Mandy fine-tunes part of the song with the choir. He tells the singers that one line has to be exceptionally high energy: “I won’t trade nothin’ for my journey now.”

A man in the choir asks “but what does that mean?” Smith replies matter-of-factly, “You’re on a journey as a servant of God – you’re not gonna trade anything for that, right?” The next run-through sounds much better.

There is something about this place. Everyone is close, but not clique-y. People show interest in you, but it’s not feigned like someone in a grocery store trying to sell you a credit card.

Nobody’s selling anything, they just want you to feel welcome.

Many people make it feel this way, and one of them is Floyd Colley. The drummer in the church band, he’s a jolly person, quick to crack a joke. He is so dedicated to his nickname, BigFlo, it’s on his business card. At the end of his voicemail recording, he says “be blessed.” He speaks enthusiastically, often punctuating his convictions by lightly hitting whatever object is in reach.

Church drummer Floyd Colley says “Music hits the soul. It lifts me.” - Julian Abraham
Church drummer Floyd Colley says “Music hits the soul. It lifts me.” - Julian Abraham

For him, something was missing before he got involved in church. He was a DJ and spent lots of time going to nightclubs in his early 20s. A few years later, when he was baptized, everything changed. “I felt like I got more out of going to the church than going to the club.”

In 2017 Saint Thomas suffered a fire that caused $200,000 worth of damage. It was closed for six months, and services held at the local community centre.

Was it the same? “It doesn’t matter if you have church in the church, a community centre, or in a Tim Horton’s,” Colley says. “It’s about the people.”


On Sunday morning ladies in bright, colourful dresses with matching hats tiptoe over snowbanks into the church. Men wear extravagant, loose-fitting suits and wide-legged pants. One is wearing zebra print shoes, the pants rolled up to show them off. Pleasantly thumping gospel music can be heard a block away.

Swing the door open, and you’ll hear the choir singing at full steam. People make their way in, catching up, hugging. Kids at this church service look less bored than you might expect, and happy to see their friends.

Pastor Wallace Smith Sr. takes the stage, greets the crowd, and starts to preach. His granddaughter Reeny Smith – known throughout Atlantic Canada as an R&B singer who won two East Coast Music Awards – plays organ softly, letting out a wobbly, heavenly chord after every key point he makes. They’ve been sharing a stage every Sunday since Reeny was twelve, except when Reeny can’t make it home because she’s on tour.   

After Pastor Smith’s sermon, the band and choir move into another lively song. Most of the congregation stand up and start dancing in the pews.

Floyd Colley is on the drums. He’s wearing a loose-collared shirt, and looks happy to be here. His head bobs to the beat and, while using both hands to drum, he somehow waves to a friend who just arrived.

Two older women are up in front of the pews, in front of the stage, holding hands and dancing. They wear matching purple dresses and hats. It’s a cute scene; they look like adults and toddlers at the same time.

A third older woman, sitting on the second-floor balcony, dramatically gets up and begins a jovial strut to the beat of the song. People cheer her on. She performs this same exaggerated walk all the way down the stairs and joins the two matching ladies. On her face is a gigantic smile. The matching ladies are thrilled.

When the band is playing in Saint Thomas Baptist Church, music can be heard from a block away. - Julian Abraham
When the band is playing in Saint Thomas Baptist Church, music can be heard from a block away. - Julian Abraham

The next segment of church, testimony, is where anyone can take the microphone and give a mini-sermon. Pastor Smith, with a grin, says, “try to keep it brief, please.” The crowd laughs in a knowing way; this might have been an issue in the past.

A man in his 30s recounts how he almost got hit by a boulder at his construction job, and thanked God for saving him, and he meant it.

The second person, an older lady, offers a general thank you to God, saying how grateful she is for her children, and everyone who cares for her. It is touching and sincere. As she comes down from the stage, people hug her.   

The third testimony starts when a tall, slim man wearing shiny sunglasses stands up. An usher hands him a microphone, and he pauses. Instead of speaking he starts singing a wild and beautifully soulful vocal riff. He sounds like a rock star, and looks like one. He’s completely serious about this, which makes it even funnier, because judging by the crowd’s laughs and cheers, he’s a known jokester.

The band realizes they know the song, so start playing along. Everyone joins in. What was supposed to be a brief, spoken testimony has somehow turned into a song that isn’t on the itinerary, but nobody seems to mind.

The man, still singing and dancing, motions to one of the ushers to come and sing the rest. After much encouragement from the audience the usher, who looks about 16, hesitantly takes the mic.

He walks about ten feet with it, over to a small hallway near the stage, where he hides away from sight. He starts singing really well. All you can see is the back of his shoulders and his body shaking with every vibrato. Everyone cheers by far the loudest so far.  

After a few verses, he comes out with a bashful smile – and is met with a standing ovation.
Surrounded by people who want the best for him, another talented kid goes home knowing he can.

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