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A Dream Fulfilled in the Gospel Tent

Lawrence Lanahan

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Ron Hadley leads The Worship Squad in rehearsal
(Lawrence Lanahan)
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Right now in New Orleans, the second weekend of the Jazz and Heritage Festival is in full swing. Last weekend, a group called the Worship Squad had their first performance under the acclaimed Gospel Tent. Louisiana is crawling with gospel choirs, and being invited to the Gospel Tent at Jazz Fest pretty much means you've made it.

Ron Hadley is the leader of the The Worship Squad, and his personal journey to the big show has not been an easy one. Reporter Lawrence Lanahan has the minister's story.

If I had to sum up Jazz Fest in just one word, I'd have to say... decadence. But just outside the main hubbub is a sanctified space: the Gospel Tent.

This year, a young group called The Worship Squad plays the Gospel Tent for the first time ever. Ron Hadley, a 27-year-old minister, is their leader. Hadley is a big, sweet, soft-spoken guy, but he's got this quiet intensity, as if he were planning his next big venture or even communicating with God.

As it happens, he's often doing both at the same time.

His life-long dream has been to take his own group to the Gospel Tent. But the way he tells it, no one who knew him seven or eight years ago would have expected to see him there.

Hadley was a troublemaker as a teen, but in 2001 he got into serious trouble. He was on probation for a juvenile offense when he caught an adult charge that triggered a probation violation.

"I think it was misdemeanor theft," says Hadley. "At that time, the police had been to my mom's house one time looking for me. My mom called and told me on the phone: 'Don't you come to Raceland, something's going on, you need get to yourself together.'"

A warrant was out for his arrest. Then he got his girlfriend pregnant. And at 26 weeks, complications arose.

"The baby's heart rate kept dropping, kept dropping, kept dropping," says Hadley. "The doctor comes in and says to us, 'If you have to have this baby now, the chances of him living are slim to none.'"

The heart rate continued dropping. His girlfriend went to the hospital to deliver their child, and Hadley began to bargain with God.

"I began to pray," says Hadley. "And I told him, 'You know, God, if you bring me through this, I promise to live for you and be the best father I can be.'"

Then he made the biggest decision of his life.

"The baby was born December 25 of '01, and I turned myself in January 16," says Hadley.

Three days before the Gospel Tent debut, Hadley has The Worship Squad gathered for rehearsal at the church where he's minister of music. There's been a mix-up with the time, and they get going a little bit late. The group is just like a family, with all the bickering, and all the caring and love.

"I'm like the daddy," says Hadley. I ask him what his punishment is when singers arrive late. "They don't let me punish them, they stick together," he says as the room explodes in cackles.

During one song, Hadley rides them really hard. He cuts off the song and lays into the group. "There's too many of y'all! Sing out! I'm right in front of you and I'm not hearing you!"

But he's just as quick with encouragement, and after an hour the booming sound and sweet harmonies sound like they're ready for the big stage.

At Hadley's apartment outside of New Orleans, the walls are like a scrapbook of his life: old concert programs, religious figurines. Hadley pulls down a piece of art someone from his church brought to him while he was in jail.

"As you can see, it's a picture of a man holding his child," Hadley says. "And this is very important to me because the most important thing in my life is my son. If my house was to try to catch on fire, this is the first thing I grab."

After being born premature, his son spent six months in the hospital. That whole time, Hadley was in jail waiting for his court date. That, he says, is when God came to him and his life began to transform.

"Well, my son," says Hadley, "he got out on June 24, and I got out on June 26."

For the next year, Ron Jr. was on oxygen, but he eventually became healthy. He's 6 now. During that time, Ron Sr. got a GED and an associate degree. He started a couple of gospel groups, but they didn't work out.

"I was going through a phase where I was sick of people just playing church," says Hadley. The Worship Squad, though, feels right to him. "They all are born again," he says. "They all are spirit-filled."

In late 2007, a Jazz Fest employee who attends the church where Hadley was minister of music saw the Worship Squad. "She referred me to the lady who is in charge of booking the talent for Gospel Tent," says Hadley. In January, The Worship Squad got the news: they were invited to take the stage on the Saturday of the festival's first weekend.

Backstage at the Gospel Tent on Saturday morning, things are tense. Hadley had to coordinate the arrival of 30 people at the gate -- half from the group, half family and friends -- and he only had nine parking passes. Hadley was irritable on the way there, and just before the performance, he's distracted. And, like a family, his singers find this the perfect opportunity to tease him.

"Ron, we were really thinking about voting you out as the leader," says one singer, eliciting laughs from the others. "You're on thin ice," she says, parroting something Hadley had said a few minutes earlier while waving a handful of ice from a backstage cooler.

But when Hadley calls them to prayer, any lingering frustration dissipates. Another singer leads the prayer, acknowledging the difficult morning they've had in between interjections of "Lord My Father" and amens from the other singers. Then they file out to the stage.

The emcee introduces them, but the stagehands are still plugging in cables and setting up keyboards, and she's stuck for 10 minutes. During the break, the emcee engages in a Gospel Tent tradition: asking crowd members where they are from. She gets a shout out from Cleveland, New Orleans (of course), and even Scotland and England.

Finally it's time, and she screams, "Put your hands together for The Worship Squad!"

The Worship Squad opens with "Giants," during which they circle their mic stands seven times to mimic the circling of walls during the siege of Jericho in the Bible. The song starts off slow, but soon they are absolutely cooking. Hadley told me earlier that they weren't likely to play any slow songs, and he was right -- they keep a frenetic pace the whole set.

Hadley's next dream is to tour overseas, and this stage is where they're most likely to be discovered. But it all rides on the crowd's reaction. And by the end, The Worship Squad has the front half of the packed tent on their feet.

Outside the tent as the next band gets going, there's just one audience member that Hadley is worried about: Ron Jr.

Ron Sr. leans down to talk to him. "Are you proud of me?" he asks.

"Yes," says Ron Jr. in his adorably squeaky voice. "I'm proud of you."


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