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story.lead_photo.caption Singer Desi Chittum rehearses with the Gospel Light praise and worship band on June 26, 2020.-Photo by Cassidy Kendall of The Sentinel-Record

A genuine heart and deep understanding of what her purpose is in life and on stage are what inspire local worship leader Desiree Salazar Chittum to continuously utilize her musical talents with one purpose in mind -- praising and singing to her God.

With 17 years of experience behind the mic, the California native has witnessed various progressions of the overall sound and style of music played and performed by vocalists and instrumentalists at Gospel Light Baptist Church in Hot Springs.

"How I first kind of started was being a member of different teams, the choir and singing in different groups," Chittum said. "Always loved singing. At the time, Sonya (Chittum, mother-in-law) was in charge of all of that and she asked if I wanted to sing. We just started off with that and then when Brother Eric (Capaci, pastor of Gospel Light) decided to make changes, we went through all of the sermon series and he explained, 'This is why we're making changes and this is why we're going to incorporate a worship team.'"

While the idea of supporting a worship team was an overlooked and unwelcome notion at one time, it now stands as a group that consistently works together to create an atmosphere for "true worship," joy and revitalization.

For Chittum and many others she knew who had not yet experienced the somewhat contemporary texture of modern Christian worship, the shift was a gradual process that took time to truly embrace.

"I'm not a great singer, but it's a passion of mine," she said. "I've been able to come out of my shell even more in the aspect of worship and really truly give it my all.

"I know a lot of people were not for it; it was a huge change. ... I think back to when we started really incorporating (worship). We sang a lot about God, but I felt that the changes were (made) to be singing to God, and I think that was really important. It was hard for me, as well, because I wasn't used to that; I don't think any of us were, but I fully believe that when people really open their heart to what true worship is, that there's a light bulb and they're like, 'Ah, this is it.'"

Strong aspirations to live out "true worship" when performing, as well in her day-to-day routine, have greatly impacted Chittum's personal outlook on what she believes the worship team's main purpose to be.

"It's always been a desire of mine to really help people just know the true meaning of worship," she said. "I know it's tough for some people because of either the way they were raised or we're just not used to it, but the Bible tells us to worship in spirit and in truth ... I truly believe in genuine worship and I believe that when somebody truly knows and is close to God's heart, we can know that truth.

"It's very easy to get up there and perform, but that's not the goal. ... I took it very seriously and studied what true worship is. True worship is just glorifying God and it's not about singing to the people of the church and making them feel good, it's about singing to God and inviting people to join you and to worship with you. I was very careful and I prayed so hard; I didn't want to fall into the whole perform and sing thing. It is hard not to do, but I feel like it challenged me a lot more to get a lot closer to the heart of that because I didn't want to be hypocritical."

Hours of hard work and practice go into weekly preparations for each performance, enlisting all team members to be versed and ready once they reach Saturday's rehearsal.

For whichever group is on the worship team rotation schedule for that particular week, a "list" of carefully chosen and service-integrated songs is sent out to the vocalists and instrumentalists involved where it is then each artist's responsibility to "go over everything," practice accordingly and recognize individual parts so that the team is readily prepared for the Sunday service.

Instruments that contribute to the team's unique overall sound include a variety of guitars with both the bass and electric guitars, the piano, a synthesizer and the drums.

"I think this year Jordan (Elkins, worship pastor) is gonna try to incorporate a lot more people with talents and do an even bigger rotation schedule so that a lot of the younger generation, as well, can come in and play for a Sunday or two Sundays," added Chittum. "I love that; I admire that because it's really important to him to find people with spiritual gifts and talents, and use them."

As churches closed their doors to in-person worship due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chittum and the Gospel Light worship team sought to keep their community connected by innovatively recording performances of praise and worship songs for online services that could be viewed on the church's website.

Despite the slight inconvenience of having to adjust to a virtual platform, Chittum described several positives brought about by the situation.

"It was a little different just because you're being recorded," she pointed out. "At that time it was like, 'Where are my people? We're not singing together.' I'm literally singing into a camera, so I really had to focus a lot on the words and on the message of the song, and not about, 'How's this going to look on camera?' We came in and recorded, but a lot of the credit goes to our media team because they worked so hard in editing, mixing and blending. We don't have to worry so much about that in a live performance.

"We just wanted to kind of connect with our church, and I know it's really important to a lot of them because a lot of them would message me, 'This is great! We miss it.' So it's nice that people miss it -- worshipping together. But I think it also gave everybody a chance to really focus on themselves and the importance of personal worship because, I feel, that's just way more important than coming to church on Sunday and singing for 15 minutes. Worship is every day of your life; you should give so much every day (and) it's not just music. I personally felt corona helped me grow spiritually. It just really took a lot of things into light and now that I can't help on a stage, it was different working on myself for that amount of time."

Multiple experiences on and off the stage and in her Christian upbringing have helped to grow and guide Chittum through her years as a singer, but her devotion to exercising and fulfilling the true definition of Christian worship is what gives meaning to her role as a worship leader.

"We have been to Teen Revolution," she noted of her team's presence and performance at an annual summer youth conference hosted by Gospel Light. "I'm not currently on it anymore, but when I was on it I was on it for three years. That was a really good experience because that was geared more towards young people, and young people love music. They love all types of music so it was really a proud thing just to be able to get them involved in worship music. It's very awkward to really get involved because some are like, 'What are people gonna think of me? I don't do anything; I don't sing.' That was a very eye-opening experience and we did have a lot of teens that really truly bought into worshipping God as far as that part of the service went.

"The city prayer meetings that would go on for a while and our (worship) team got to do that a couple of times. That was one of my favorites because it was a meeting of worship and prayer, and everybody got to. Corporate worship and prayer are two things I truly believe go hand-in-hand -- prayer and worship. ... I use a lot of the songs as prayers. If I don't know what to say sometimes about ways I'm feeling, you know, you've been there where you're done with everything and you're feeling emotional, you're feeling broken; I just pick a song that has to do with thankfulness and praising Him, and that's what I did. I'm singing, but I'm praying. ... I don't take it lightly."

With an understanding as to why some may face challenges that might prevent them from participating on a worship team or in a service -- whether it be musical preference or fear of standing out -- Chittum encourages that one simply "doesn't forget what worship is about."

"I pray every Sunday morning; I pray for the hearts of the people and I pray for my heart. I just pray, 'God, I don't care how I sound -- well, just a little bit,'" she said, with a laugh. "But I just pray that people can see my heart and people can truly feel why I am singing ... That's really important to me."

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