The Rev. Paul Johnson of the Eighteenth Street Community Church in Altoona laughs in disbelief at being asked to speak again at the Pennsylvania State Singing Convention in Martinsburg. Johnson spoke a couple years ago at the culminating service and was surprised to be asked back.
On a brochure for the four-day Southern gospel music festival is Johnson's face above the words "Back by popular demand."
"I saw that, and I kept looking at it and I said 'It can't be me,'" Johnson said, likening himself to Barabbas, the criminal in the Bible who was sentenced to die the same day as Jesus.
Instead of setting Jesus free, the crowd demanded Barabbas, a convicted murderer be released.
"A criminal sentenced to death was back by popular demand," Johnson said. "I belong in jail just like Barabbas, but I also got set free."
Johnson said he's flattered and excited to preach again at the 10 a.m. church service Aug. 14 .
"It's just a great opportunity for Christians and nonChristians to get together and glorify God," Johnson said.
The music is the highlight of the music festival held Aug. 11 to 14 at Morrisons Cove Memorial Park in Martinsburg.
"I love gospel music. I love all music, but especially gospel. It's really down to earth. The words are real easy to understand and most of all, the song tells a story," Johnson said.
This is the 36th year for the convention, which was started by the Vicksburg Quartet of Duncansville. The group no longer sings but continues to provide the music event.
About 150 different performers take the stage throughout the convention, which attracts thousands of people and costs about $10,000, said Steve Aungst, festival organizer and an original member of the Vicksburgs.
Fans enjoy hearing the music for free, but donations help pay for the event.
"We try to get enough money to cover the cost," Aungst said. "Everybody enjoys themselves. They don't want to go home."
Some of the well-known names in Southern gospel music circles who will perform this year are The Perrys on Aug. 12, the Freemans on Aug. 13 and the Easters on Aug. 14.
But lesser known groups also draw a crowd.
Perfect Love, a trio from Winchester, Va., will perform at the festival for the first time. Becky Miller, a member of Perfect Love has been in the festival in years prior with different groups.
"It's so much fun. The people are great. It feels like family. Everybody sits together and sings. There's lots of good food and fellowship," Miller said.
She describes Perfect Love's style as progressive Southern gospel.
"We sing a lot of old hymns. We've redone them a little bit differently, so they're not right out of the hymn book," she said.
The other members of Perfect Love are Miller's husband, Randy, and their friend Heather Meade.
"We want people to be encouraged with their walk with the Lord. We really minister to them and we want them to have what we have - that relationship with Jesus Christ," she said.
The singing group 3 as 1 wants to spread the message that Christ loves everyone.
The group formed a few years ago, after member Willie James of New Jersey watched a program on TV about the Gaither Vocal Band.
"I sat there and cried like a baby. I loved it. I fell in love with them that night and I knew I wanted to do their music. That was it for me," James said.
So, Willie and his wife, Geri, along with a fellow church member Frank Allen perform Southern gospel music in the style of the Gaither Vocal Band with the message of salvation.
"Everybody is part of the body of Christ. He died on the cross, but he is alive and well. All we have to do is receive salvation," James said.
"God loves us all. No matter what we do. We could never do anything so awful that he won't receive us back."