September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

LOOKING PRETTY IN THE BLUE chiffon dress her mother had made for her, Linda Searight, then 5 years old, stood alone to sing a hymn before a national Baptist convention in Denver and got a whopping case of stage fright. “I was scared to death,” recalls Searight, “but I remember something more important. I remember Mommy standing on the edge of the stage, and she had the biggest grin you ever saw. It’s the same way I grin when God’s Property performs.”

These days, Searight, 49, can’t stop grinning. God’s Property, the community gospel choir she organized for Dallas teens in 1992, is enjoying divine success. In June its debut album, produced by top-selling gospel artist Kirk Franklin, broke onto Billboard’s album charts at No. 3—a first for a gospel group. And its rollicking single “Stomp” became MTV’s first-ever gospel video selection.

Making a platinum record was the furthest thing from Searight’s mind in 1990, when she came across a group of students singing gospel music at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, where her eldest son was enrolled. Searight, a music teacher who lives with her husband, Robert, 49, a math teacher, in the Dallas suburb Oak Cliff, offered to give the kids a few pointers.

One thing led to another and, in November 1992, “trying to do something positive” to steer teenagers away from drugs and other temptations, Searight decided to form a full-fledged choir. Her children Robert, now 22, Robin, 20, and Rachella, 18 (all God’s Property members), and their friends handed out scores of the flyers that she drew by hand: “Meet at New Born Baptist Church, Saturday.” About 20 youths—most of them still members today—showed up. “God sent them my way,” Searight says. “These were kegs of dynamite of talent.” As she anticipated, some members came from troubled backgrounds, and some—such as Caltomeesh West, 20—discovered that the choir had more to offer than music. God’s Property, says West, a former Dallas gang member, gave her the courage “to free myself from destruction.”

The 45-member choir was soon receiving invitations to sing at area churches and music halls. After catching a performance in 1993, an impressed Kirk Franklin decided to offer the group a job backing him up, first on his 1994 Christmas album, then on 1995’s Whatcha Lookin’ 4. He admired the group’s streetwise, R&B-tinged style (“When you talk about gospel music, the choir robes, the old anthems and hymnbooks, they didn’t fit that mold”) and Searight’s passion. “It’s one thing to do it for a job,” he says, “it’s another to do because you have the heart.”

Searight also had parents who fed her creativity. Her father was a Baptist minister in Denver; her mother was a local fashion designer. (Both died in 1995.) “Watching [my mother] sit in her hat shop and make something out of nothing was like training me,” says Searight. She and her four older brothers and two younger, adopted sisters performed skits and songs at dinner parties held by their opera-singer aunt, Anna Lee Williams.

Searight, who studied music education at Dallas’s Bishop College, has taken a leave from her elementary-school position to serve as the head artistic director for God’s Property, which has just completed its first national tour and shot two more videos. She misses school but hasn’t stopped teaching—onstage. “Give me some young people I can motivate,” she says. “Let me challenge them to do stuff that they don’t think they can do. Then I’m happy.”

SAMANTHA MILLER

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