Chris Benjamin’s love of music turned into a future he never imagined – but not without a little help along the way
By Sara Kelm
“And the home . . . of the . . . brave.” When Chris Benjamin, a 15-year-old high school freshman, had finished singing, the choir teachers could only stare at him, dumbfounded.
In his head, he just knew they didn’t like him. “I was ready to just tuck my tail under and walk out,” Benjamin recalls.
But before he could leave in embarrassment, Mrs. Bohart regained her composure. “Why aren’t you in choir?” she asked, still flabbergasted by Benjamin’s exquisite tenor voice.
“We have a choir?” he innocently replied.
Singing is one of the few things that came easy for Benjamin. His life had been hard, with his father in jail for half of his life and his family moving constantly, around Oregon and later Mississippi. Benjamin had been abused on occasion, emotionally and physically, and at those times he chose a friend’s couch or sleeping outside on the street over a hurtful home. Now, because of a Mississippi transcript problem, he had to repeat his first two years at Reynolds High School.
After his audition, the teachers invited him to sit in on a choir class. Right before he left the room, they remembered, “Oh yeah, and you can sing the national anthem.”
From that moment on, Karen Bohart took the big and boisterous high schooler under her wing. She overcame his aversion to classical music — for Benjamin, listening to classical was like “trying to feed a little kid vegetables” — and before long he was singing in top-notch choirs. She also took Benjamin as a soloist to New York and California, and let him direct one of her choirs for his senior project.
During his junior year, Mrs. Bohart said, “Chris, you are going to college.”
Benjamin laughs remembering it. He describes her as sweet, but “a bulldog. If she wants you to do something, you’re going to do it. If she sees something in you, she almost takes the role as mom in your life.” With her dogged encouragement, Benjamin warmed up to the idea of college. But just getting used to it didn’t make it so – he had to pass high school first.
During his senior year, Benjamin lived with his father in Northeast Portland. Each morning, he had to complete a two-hour journey to school on buses and the MAX train. Many nights, he would finish rehearsing at 11 p.m., travel home, do homework until early in the morning, then wake up to leave at 5 a.m. He became stressed and sick, neglected his schoolwork, and was in danger of not graduating.
It was at that time that another pushy and loving woman came into Benjamin’s life: Patricia Baker. He describes her as “the smallest woman, but with the biggest heart, who gets excited about the smallest things.” The wife of the arts director at Reynolds and a retired principal, Baker had already raised two daughters, so she decided her home was big enough for a 19-year-old man. So Patricia and Dan Baker, plus the choir teachers, announced that Benjamin would move in with the Bakers, who lived only five minutes from the school.
At first he protested. A self-proclaimed “daddy’s boy,” he didn’t want to leave his father, recently out of prison. Then his father came to him, unaware of the proposal set in front of Benjamin, and said if his son had the chance to move closer to school in order to graduate, he should take it. So he did, and he graduated.
He was ready to move out that summer, but the Bakers had become a big part of his life. “They took on the parent role without knocking out my own parents,” says Benjamin. The Bakers didn’t bring up the idea of him moving out until the summer was well underway, at which point they let him know that “you’re not held hostage here, but you are welcome here.” So he stayed around, and just like Mrs. Bohart before them, the Bakers’ minds went straight to college.
Benjamin didn’t think college was an option. But the Bakers urged him to apply to George Fox, just to see what would happen. So he sent up a prayer: “God, whatever you want, that’s what I’m going to do.” A day or so later, Benjamin was leaving the Bakers’ home with Mrs. Baker. She rushed inside to answer the telephone, then just as quickly rushed back outside, literally jumping with joy. “She was trying to remain professional,” recalls Benjamin, “but she was hopping and skipping” with a huge smile on her face. It was George Fox University, and he had been accepted.
The Bakers continue to be a huge part of Benjamin’s life. He recalls how they’ve helped him “get in and stay in” college. “They are big pillars to lean on, but they won’t allow me to be lazy,”
Lazy, Benjamin is not. Now a senior at George Fox, he’s studying music performance and music education, is involved in choir and musicals, and serves as a part-time minister at his church. He also started his own gospel choir, Voices of Praise.
The choir has an intentional purpose. Benjamin hopes it will give the George Fox community a different type of worship experience. As a black student on a primarily white campus, he wants to show that all kinds of worship are for everyone. “Our mission is to worship,” he says, “to bring a community to worship, to show another way to worship God.”
This worship mind-set bleeds into all of the music that Benjamin sings, whether it’s a classical German piece or a gospel worship song. “I’m going to worship in whatever way I can, whatever languages there are out there,” he says. “That’s what I love about the classical world. It is always sung differently, sounds different, but the worship mind-set is always the same.”
With worship shaping his whole perspective, Benjamin’s short-term goals are to graduate from George Fox this year and continue directing the Voices of Praise. In the long-term, he wants a specific job: Mrs. Bohart’s.
In high school, Benjamin told Mrs. Bohart, “Okay, I’ll go to college – for you – but I want to come back and teach in this district.” He wants to be the Mrs. Bohart, the Patricia and Dan Baker, to the next generation of Chris Benjamins. He can’t wait to tell them that they can go to college, and that he can help them get there – just like he heard several years ago from those strong and loving women in his own life.