The annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ through the presentation of the Singing Christmas Tree at Highland Baptist Church in Hope Mills will have a dual meaning this season. This year’s performance is scheduled for Dec. 7, 8 and 9 at 7 p.m. each evening.
The choir members, and the congregation as well, will celebrate the memory and ministry of their late choir director, Nancy Brady, who died last May after a second battle with cancer.
It is fitting that Dawn Seegars, a pupil of Brady’s years ago at Hope Mills Junior High School, who later sang under her direction at Highland Baptist, is taking time from her regular job of leading the music ministry at Temple Baptist Church in Eastover to lead the Singing Christmas Tree at Highland. This will be the first Singing Christmas Tree since Brady died.
“She was my junior high chorus teacher at Hope Mills,’’ Seegars said, “and I was a member at Highland under her ministry.”
Seegars said Brady had a way of making anyone who wanted to be a part of the music ministry at Highland feel welcome, whether they had any background in music or not.
Brady was in poor health last year when the Singing Christmas Tree practices began, and Seegars was actually on standby to come in at the last minute if Brady wasn’t able to lead the choir.
When Brady died earlier this year, Seegars said church members reached out to her and asked if she would be able to direct the choir this Christmas season. “I have a large group of friends at Highland,’’ Seegars said. “I love the people at that church. They are precious, sweet people. I’ve always kept in touch, especially with Nancy, trying to help her.’’
Rehearsals have been a challenge for Seegars, dividing time between her full-time job as a nurse at a local gastrointestinal practice and her regular duties with the music ministry at Temple Baptist.
“The choir has been fantastic,’’ she said of the people at Highland. “They have worked so hard on their own, and we’ve had lengthy practices instead of multiple practices.’’
Brady traditionally picked the music for the Singing Christmas Tree each year, mixing traditional tunes with contemporary selections. Seegars has tried to follow in that tradition but insisted on getting input from the Highland singers. “I don’t mind being a leader and helping with the music, but I felt like — and some of the people I spoke with felt like — we really needed everybody to come together and say, yes, we wanted to do this,’’ Seegars said.
The biggest challenge for Seegars was dealing with her personal emotions and those of the choir members as rehearsals began, being exposed to tangible memories of Brady’s presence and influence on the church’s music.
“It was a hurting place,’’ Seegars said. “To walk in the choir room and to sit at the piano where she played parts for all of us to learn choir music from for so many years. To see the notes she had written: The last few practices where they took prayer requests, and it’s sitting there in her handwriting.
“It’s all been quite an emotional journey.’’ The same is true for longtime choir members like Dede Mabe, who has been around since Highland started the Singing Christmas Tree in the mid-1980s.
“Nancy was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known,’’ Mabe said of Brady. The Singing Christmas Tree wasn’t a performance of music for Brady, Mabe said. It was a ministry, the biggest outreach that the church does. “It takes about 100 people to put it all together,’’ Mabe said. “It’s an outreach because you are telling the story of Jesus Christ being born. You are just spreading the word.’’
For Mabe, the most powerful memories of Brady leading the singing of the Singing Christmas Tree every year are yet to come. They will happen during the actual presentation.
When the singers were actually in place, Brady would stand in the back of the church on a scaffold, out of view of the congregation.
Brady wore oversized Mickey Mouse hands that glowed in the dark while directing. “Sometimes she would do little things to make us smile,’’ Mabe said. “She would clap or give you a thumbs-up. If she was really feeling the spirit, she’d throw her hands up in the air, praising the Lord. I’ll miss seeing that.’’
Highland’s pastor, Rev. Zach Kennedy, agreed with Mabe that for Brady, the Singing Christmas Tree was a ministry of the church, not a mere performance of music.
“She wanted people to understand what Christmas was really about,’’ he said. “She wanted them to understand God literally sent his son to become a man. Christmas is all about the beginning of how all people can be saved and brought to aright relationship with God.’’
Kennedy said the Singing Christmas Tree gives the church an opportunity to connect with people who might not come to a regular Sunday morning worship service.
He said the perfect tribute to Brady at this year’s Singing Christmas Tree would be for even one person to attend the event and come to a real relationship with Jesus.
“That’s exactly what Nancy would want and what every one of us should want out of that,’’ he said.
Seating for the Singing Christmas Tree is on a first come, first served basis, and there is no charge. The church has a food pantry and is partnering with the Balm In Gilead Family Counseling Ministries to accept donations of non-perishable food, clothing and hygiene items.
For more information on making donations or on the event, contact the church during regular business hours at 910-425-5305.