The youth shall lead them

by Robert Mitchell and Stephanie Rex

Some people are surprised to see Salvation Army Envoy Chris Mackneer surrounded by young people as he leads praise and worship each Sunday in Rochester, Pa.

Envoy Chris said that’s not the only thing that raises eyebrows about the five-member youth band, which performs three contemporary Christian songs a week during services.

“We’ve had a couple of people come in and they’re surprised at how good they actually are and how good they sound,” he said. “The kids are definitely quality. We make sure every week we have about an hour practice on a Thursday night. We really try and make sure everything is quality.”

The praise band is a family affair of sorts and includes siblings Shylah Cruz, 11, who plays piano, and Cairo Cruz, 9, a drummer. The Cruz family came to The Salvation Army in 2020 seeking Christmas assistance and signed up Shylah and Cairo for music lessons. Rounding out the band is the three children of Envoy Chris and his wife, Envoy MaryKay Mackneer—Javan, 14, a drummer; Caleb, 15, on bass guitar; and Ally, 8, on vocals.

All the current band members have taken part in Star Search and are also proficient percussionists.

Envoy Chris, who plays guitar and leads praise and worship on Sunday mornings, said 8-year-old guitarist Adam Hartley is a month or two away from joining the group. Envoy Chris is providing music lessons to 15 additional youth who could potentially be in the pipeline to join the praise band soon.

“We do individual music lessons for the community and church,” Envoy Chris said. “They start in music lessons and once they get good enough, we put them on stage.”

The Mackneers arrived in Rochester in 2020 and before that were youth leaders in Allegheny Valley and Greensburg in The Salvation Army’s Western Pennsylvania Division. They’ve had a youth band at each location. The idea began in Allegheny Valley when a youngster in the corps got a guitar for Christmas but didn’t know how to play.

“He came in for lessons and it started from there,” Envoy Chris said.

One challenge with young people is nerves, Envoy Chris said the band recently performed before about 200 people at Camp Allegheny to get stage fright out of their systems.

“Putting them on stage works through that,” he said. “It was fun to see them play and be able to work through that. It’s good for them to do that early because if they have to do a presentation or perform musically later in life, maybe they won’t be as nervous.”

The music program has also been a bridge to the corps and the Cruz family is now a part of the church.

“My favorite part is learning about God and being with the pastors and everyone else, and going to church,” Shylah said. “I want to stay here forever.”