MANATEE -- When tenor Ben Bruce belted out "Redeemed" on a recent Sunday morning, it sounded like he was preaching the hymn, not just singing it.
"Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!" Bruce sang, hammering the air with his fist for emphasis. "Redeemed by the blood of the lamb. Redeemed through his infinite mercy. His child, and forever, I am."
Many in the congregation at Cortez Road Baptist Church, perhaps sensing Bruce's conviction, yelled out "Amen" and clapped when the song was over.
One would naturally think that such intensity would have to come from a person of many years.
But Bruce just turned 18 in April, is a recent Community Christian School graduate, and is among the youngest choir and singing directors of any Manatee County church.
Ben's grandfather, the still-fiery Roy Bruce, is the pastor of Cortez Road Baptist at age 84, making him among the oldest pastors still leading a Manatee County church.
Together, these two have put together a "one-two" Jesus punch, say members of the church that swells to 150 members during the winter from about 50 in the summer.
"We love them," church member Carlos Niblett said of the dynamic duo. "What a wonderful Christian family."
This church near the village of Cortez hadn't had a choir for 40 years until Ben put one together when he was just 16, the Rev. Roy Bruce said of his grandson.
Church members have decided to invite the public to hear Ben and his choir sing and his grandfather
preach at a special service at the church, 4411 100th St. W., beginning at 10:30 a.m. July 29.
It's Ben's last day as he is heading to West Coast Baptist College in Lancaster, Calif., to study music ministry.
A turkey dinner for the public follows the service, said Pastor Bruce, who preaches that God made man to fellowship with Him and man must shed his sin in order to complete the fellowship connection.
Ben, his choir, his grandfather and this old-time hymn-loving church are a feel-good story, said Ben's father, former Manatee County commissioner Jon Bruce, the Rev. Roy Bruce's son.
"For all the nonsense going on in the world, here is someone representing this generation giving us all hope that the future can be bright," Jon Bruce said of Ben, who grew up in the Bruce family home in Braden Woods, just off State Road 70, along with his younger sister, Christina, 16.
"There is a great chemistry between my dad and son and Cortez Baptist," Jon Bruce added. "It was nice as a congregation that they accepted a 16-year-old as their music leader and gave him a chance. That was a leap of faith for them. That leap has been great both ways. Ben got to grow into the position and the church now has a choir."
When Ben took over as singing director and announced his desire to start a choir, church leaders expected five or six people to audition, Jon Bruce said. Roughly 20 showed up.
Many said they were impressed with Ben, who learned how to build a music ministry from Steve Kinman, the music minister at Bradenton's Bible Baptist Church, where Ben's father is a member.
"It's a joy to work with Ben," said Cortez Road Baptist Church piano player Rita Tabor, who will now inherit Ben's choir.
"He's mature beyond his years. What people notice is that this is a young man who is always dressed nicely and who loves traditional hymns, the kind that our church members love. That is unique."
Ben's grandfather on his mother's side, Roy Bridell, was the first person to inspire him musically, Ben said recently.
"Everywhere he went he would carry this Fisher-Price boombox that played tapes," Ben's grandmother, Eleanor Bridell, said. "He would sing to the tapes."
Ben's first time singing in the public was with Roy Bridell and they were performing "Jesus Loves Me" at a Baptist church in New Mexico when Ben was 5.
"He wasn't sure he wanted to do it," Eleanor Bridell said. "But after he did, he went back and told his mother, 'Now I want to sing in big church.'"
"Big church" was Woodland Baptist Church in East Manatee, and he did sing there, in choirs and solo, from first grade on, his father said.
At Community Christian, he sang in the church choir and led music in chapel.
He later took voice lessons from Sarasota's Phyllis Lowitt, who is Julliard-trained.
"My grandfather Bridell was my first mentor and, for the past five years, Steve Kinman at Bible Baptist has had an awesome influence on me," Ben said.
Ben said his biggest thrill about July 29 is that maybe a stranger will come to the church and find a true connection that changes their life.
"If you try to encapsulate Ben's ministry, it is putting the Lord first," Jon Bruce said. "He knows if he continues to do that, his work will be blessed."