"People come to me when they need a certain type of spiritual help," says the Reverend Dr. Marjorie Williams-Cooper. "What I do is cast out devils, stuff like that. That area. People come to me saying they are being oppressed, attacked or even possessed by demons. Or maybe their house is haunted. Lots of places are haunted. Then I work with them. And I minister to victims who have been in the occult arts, too."
To say the least, Williams-Cooper is an original: She may be the Denver area's only singing ghostbuster. Call her if you need a classically trained contralto vocalist. Call her if you've got evil spirits in your attic. But whenever you call her, call her by her proper title: The Reverend Dr. Williams-Cooper likes it that way--and besides, she's earned it. "Girl, it was hard to come by," she admits. "Because guys don't want you to have it. It's hard out there being a woman."
Now 48, Williams-Cooper has a vivacious personality, a peaceful manner, a lovely laugh and a face that forgets to show at least fifteen of its years. But her youthful visage masks many years of struggle. As she tells it, her story is about surviving long enough to discover her true path. "For a long time, I knew God had a call on my life, but I didn't want to hear it," she claims. "I didn't want to serve him, and I couldn't even conceive of a woman being a preacher. It was foreign."
So what did Williams-Cooper hope to become? A jazz singer. "I was born and raised in St. Louis," she says, "and up until the time I was about seven, I lived with my grandparents, my aunt, my mother, my brother and my sister in a one-bedroom apartment above a tavern. I used to hear the blues music drifting upstairs, and I wanted to sing that stuff."
Transforming this dream into reality proved difficult, in part because people around her had other ideas. After hearing her first solo during Easter mass at St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church, the parish's new priest, who had just arrived from Italy, told her "that I was meant to be a singer and promised to get me voice lessons. Well, at that time we were living in the housing projects, and I had never heard of a voice lesson in my life. But he did what he said."
Young Marjorie excelled at her studies, but she was frustrated that the training revolved around classical music. The same classical bias marked classes at Lincoln University, which she attended a few years later. "It was an African-American college, but you couldn't sing jazz," she notes. "You could get put out of school for singing jazz. But I'd sneak off and sing with a jazz band in one of the jazz joints on the strip. I got caught once, but they didn't put me out, because I was a good student."
Before she could embark on a full-fledged career in jazz, however, Williams-Cooper married a man she describes as "a charming street hustler" and started a family. When she wasn't busy raising her three children, she indulged in a unique sideline. "I used to cast spells and tell fortunes and stuff like that," she says matter-of-factly. "There seemed to be a talent for that in our family, a gift. We weren't using it for the glory of God, but we sure weere using it." After a pause, she adds, "I don't do that anymore, because I know it's not pleasing to God."
Williams-Cooper's marriage began to disintegrate after she moved to Denver in 1977. "He gave me the blues," she concedes. "Eventually, he dared me to choose between him and the ministry, because I had just begun to enter it. I never answered him. I didn't feel like that kind of question even needed an answer. He packed up his stuff and left, and I raised those kids by myself. Yes, it's hard to be a single parent, but I was able to do it because I know the Lord. He's more than just a God in the sky. He's very real and personal to me."
In 1980 Williams-Cooper began performing contemporary Christian music; four years later she was ordained as a Pentecostal Charismatic minister. She subsequently served for five years as vice-president of the Greater East Denver Ministerial Alliance. According to her, "It was rough. A lot of men think it's just not spiritually right for a woman to be in the ministry. See, being behind the pulpit has always been a symbol of power for men--and they have not desired to share it with women. Some folks, they find all kinds of Scripture to back the argument that women shouldn't do this. But I don't mind them. Let them go do their thing."
Williams-Cooper certainly has done hers. She founded and pastored a church for street people. She worked with women entering the ministry. And she counseled individuals involved in the occult, because "it was in my background. From the gifts of the spirit, I know the Lord will show me what is troubling them, and then I minister to their needs based upon what the Lord tells me. People will only reveal some things to you. But the Lord will reveal whatever needs to be revealed."
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Today Williams-Cooper says her days as a freelance exorcist are mostly behind her; she delves only into the mystic "when the Lord sends someone." Instead, she's concentrating on her music. "The music is another spiritual experience," she points out. "It meets my needs spiritually and emotionally. At my age, this is kind of like starting over again. For a long time, I've devoted a lot of time to organizing and doing other work in the ministry. But now I feel I'm free to sing. This is what I was meant to do."
Not that Williams-Cooper plans to limit her future endeavors to matters of the voice. In addition to singing, she paints, acts, teaches private vocal lessons, composes and arranges music, and headlines an annual production sponsored by the Swallow Hill Music Association. This year's effort, "Compositions in Black," is designed specifically to allow her to break down the barriers between music styles that so bothered her as a child--it will include gospel, jazz, Negro spirituals and the sounds of Africa and South America. Also on the bill is Kirk Hutchinson, Williams-Cooper's longtime pianist; the Loving Saints Gospel Choir; baritone Christopher Tye and mezzo-soprano Michelle McCalmon, both of whom Williams-Cooper taught while working as a visiting artist at the Cole/Denver School of the Arts; and Ms. Wallace Yvonne McNair, a professor specializing in African-American studies who will narrate the proceedings.
To Williams-Cooper, the program synthesizes her two great passions, music and religion. "I feel that I'm in the last phase of my life--I think you always know," she says. "I'm more aware of that now, and I'm more appreciative of being able to sing. I really do think God has given me this last chance. I'm going to take it and run with it. Run for all it's worth."
The Reverend Dr. Marjorie Williams-Cooper and friends. 8 p.m. Friday, February 16, Cameron Church, 1600 South Pearl, $10/$8 Swallow Hill members, 1-800-444-SEAT or 777-1003.