Gaye Arbuckle lived through an extraordinary moment Tuesday afternoon. She sang a solo, a gospel song, which for her is nothing unusual. But on this day, there was nothing even remotely usual, or normal, or commonplace about whom she sang for.
The crowd included President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama; Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden; and former President George W. Bush and his wife, former first lady Laura Bush.
It also included a capacity crowd of more than 2,000 people at the Meyerson Symphony Center, many of them law enforcement officers still feeling a deep, raw grief over the loss of five from their ranks, men who were gunned down Thursday night during a protest in downtown Dallas.
Arbuckle’s performance was extraordinary, a healing moment in a service that sought to heal, in whatever way it could.
She sang “Total Praise,” by Richard Smallwood. The crowd appeared especially moved when she sang the lines:
Lord, I will lift my eyes to the hills
Knowing my help is coming from you
Your peace you give me in time of the storm
“I thought it was a good song for healing,” said Arbuckle, 51, a Dallas native who graduated from Carter High School in 1982 and who for the past 12 years has served as minister of music at Concord Church in Oak Cliff. She’s the mother of two children who live in Dallas, where she still makes her home. She had been picked as one of two people to lead the 60-member choir that sang during Tuesday’s emotionally moving service, which ended with a presidential address.
Arbuckle said it had long been one of her dreams, an item on her “bucket list,” to sing not just for any president but President Obama in particular.
She picked “Total Praise,” hoping to soothe, however slightly, those feeling “stress, pain, sadness and everything going on in the city right now. We needed something that would encourage all of us, white, black, brown, it doesn’t matter. In Dallas, we just need healing.”
Given the ears that would hear her sing, however, her Monday night and Tuesday morning emotions went way beyond any normal sense of stage fright, or apprehension, or anxiety.
But she handled it like the pro that she is.
“We had rehearsal Monday,” she said. “I just taught the song, and I wasn’t really planning to lead the song, but then I thought, ‘I’m going to go ahead and lead it, and maybe that will give a little more expression to the song.’ I wanted to, then I thought not to, and then this morning, I thought, ‘What an opportunity to give people strength during this time when people are hurting.’ ”
Arbuckle will never forget the families of the fallen sitting on the front row, in particular a woman, who was either a sister or wife of one of the officers killed in the line of duty. The woman sobbed uncontrollably as the scarlet-haired Arbuckle sang out powerfully.
“I thought, ‘This has to be what God wants me to do.’ I felt I was being called to give her strength, in whatever way I could.”
After the service, one of those who sought out Arbuckle for praise was Michelle Obama, who told her how much she loved the song and how dynamically Arbuckle had sung it. President Bush told her it was “great.” Vice President Biden added his commendation, calling it “a great performance.”
Arbuckle lauded the service as a whole, saying, “I thought it was needed. Desperately.” She, for one, came away feeling a collective reassurance “that we live in a country, a place where we feel, rightly, that we can be protected by police. It was reassuring to feel that everything will be better than it has been.”
She also felt doubly reassured in having picked Smallwood’s song, because it shows us “where our power comes from — it comes from God. People need to know that, even though it may not look like it right now, God has everything planned. I hope everybody felt blessed, because that’s what it’s all about.”
This is Arbuckle singing a solo about a year ago: