When Pastor Shawn Brown and Tyrone McKoy passed away in January 2010 and April 2011, respectively, it was a dark time J.J. Hairston and Youthful Praise.
Brown, an integral member of the Bridgeport-based gospel choir, won the group widespread recognition with his self-penned song, "Awesome God."
McKoy, a praise and worship leader, was an unmistakable presence in the 30-member outfit.
Yet, amid the grief, the group took solace in its two biggest passions: music and God.
"Both of them were sick and now they're not suffering," Hairston, the leader and head songwriter of Youthful Praise, said of Brown and McKoy. "Even though there's sadness, we can still have encouragement. That comes from our faith and our music."
Now, Hairston and Youthful Praise are offering encouragement to others on their latest album, "After This" (Light Records/eOne).
The record, which rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Gospel charts last month, reinforces the group's 10-year mission -- to spread hope, love and salvation through high-energy, hand-raising gospel anthems.
That mission has carried the group to appearences on "Late Night with Conan O'Brian," collaborations with Destiny's Child and Shirley Caesar and tours of churches, colleges and concert halls across the United States.
"We never anticipated things getting to where they are now," said Hairston, 37, a former Bridgeport resident and Central High School graduate. "Most of us still work day jobs. It's still so shocking to us."
Launched at Cathedral of Praise (formerly Turner's Faith Temple) in Bridgeport, the ensemble started out as the church's youth choir; it was known almost exclusively to the congregation. That began to change after the group made a string special appearences at places of worship across the Northeast, dazzling church communities with their rousing gospel numbers, including "Awesome God."
The enthusiastic response prompted Hairston and Youthful Praise to record the song, which became the title track to their debut album. Released on Light Records, the label founded by contemporary Christian music pioneer Ralph Carmichael, "Awesome God" hit the right note in the gospel music world and paved the way for nationwide tours.
"It was very exciting being in church, and then being able to travel and sing," Mike Edwards, a New Haven resident who joined the choir in 2000, said. "It's created a lot of opportunities."
A decade on, Hairston and Youthful Praise are celebrating the release of their sixth studio album, "After This." Recorded at First Cathedral Church in Bloomfield, where Hairston now serves as music minister, the 11-track LP marks a thematic departure for the choir: whereas previous records centered on praise and worship, "this one encourages people in trying times," Hairston said.
"The economy is getting better, but it's only swinging back for some people," said Hairston, adding that the album is meant to help those coping with homelessness, unemployment and financial hardship.
One of the few ensembles in a genre dominated by small groups and solo performers, Hairston and Youthful Praise have earned kudos from the Christian music community for "making the choir current," as Bishop Hezekiah Walker, a Grammy Award-winning gospel music artist who is featured on "After This," put it.
"(Hairston) shares the passion for the choir, which is the backbone of the church," Walker added.
Hairston's passion is best explained by a belief in the power of music. Whether you've lost a loved one or you've lost your job, music, combined with faith in God, can be a source of hope.
"Sometimes, we focus so much on what we're going through that we fail to see the light at the end," Hairston said, referring to thinking behind "After This." "That light indicates that there is an end to the tunnel. Therefore, we won't be in the tunnel or dark situation forever. And when we come out, we'll rejoice in joy and victory because we came out of the dark place and made it to the other side."
J.J. Hairston and Youthful Praise performs during morning worship at the Cathedral of Praise, 45 Gregory St., Bridgeport, on Sunday, April 29, 10:45 a.m. All are welcome to attend. Call 203-384-9471 or visit www.cathedralofpraisecogic.org.