‘America’s Got Talent’ showcased his smile

It was meteoric, the way Sean Panikkar’s summer unfolded.

One minute he was teaching a biblical worldview class for the youth at his church, Fellowship Baptist in Saline, Mich., and the next he was competing in the finals of the hit TV show “America’s Got Talent.”

The tenor opera trio Forte — of Panikkar, Josh Page and Fernando Varela — came in fourth in the competition, which ended Sept. 18. They finished their run on America’s Got Talent with a finals night performance alongside pop-opera star Josh Groban, who said the group has a “bright future.”

The group garnered positive fan feedback from the first audition, with audiences drawn to their vocal harmony and backstory. The fact that they were of different backgrounds — Panikkar, Sri Lankan; Varela, Puerto Rican; and Page, a New Yorker — intrigued viewers.

“This group means something more than just singing, that when you see people from different backgrounds creating harmony, that’s what the world needs right now,” Page said in an interview on the show.

Panikkar agreed that what they have been able to do “has transcended notes on a page.” What’s incredible, he said, is to see how God’s hand has guided their success.

Panikkar sees his new limelight as a clear opportunity to radiate Christ.

“None of this would be possible without God, and all this started happening after I accepted Christ,” Panikkar said.

Many fans commented on how he smiles while singing — a sign of something deeper, a marker of the joy he’s been given, Panikkar said.

He’s grateful that it shows. After all, a good smile is the way he met Jesus in the first place — a smile on the face of Jane Arvidson, a fellow member of the University Choir at the University of Michigan.

She radiated the joy she had in Christ, and “I literally couldn’t take my eyes off of her. The thing that struck me was that she was always really happy,” Panikkar said. “I finally got up the courage to introduce myself to her … and I sent her a follow-up email telling her how refreshing it was to see somebody who smiled all the time.”

She responded with a short email that simply said she smiled because Jesus loved her.

“I immediately thought she was a Jesus freak,” Panikkar said.

But as he got to know Arvidson, and as she backed up her convictions with solid answers to his questions, Panikkar said his false ideas of who Jesus was began to crumble.

He even went to church with her at Fellowship Baptist — and saw other people there who smiled like she did.

Finally over Christmas break of his sophomore year, Panikkar sat in his apartment and opened a children’s tract she had given him.

“I opened it and I just broke down,” he said. “After all the debates and the different books, this little tract explained how simple it was to accept the free gift of Christ. I knelt down and accepted Christ into my heart.”

That’s when things began to change, Panikkar said.

“Shortly after that, I started to be recognized more and more for my singing ability and I began to feel led in that direction,” he recounted. “Doors began opening for me, and even though I had never dreamed of pursuing music, I began to be given opportunities.”

It’s something he never would’ve imagined as a shy kid whose parents accused him of lip synching in choir concerts — they had never heard him sing. “I was embarrassed to sing, so to avoid practicing at home, I just had a voice lesson every day,” Panikkar said.

Eventually he was accepted to the University of Michigan’s music program as a dual major in music and civil engineering — his lifelong dream was to own a construction company.

But after he met Arvidson and opened the door of his heart to Jesus, Julliard came knocking, too — as well as the Manhattan School of Music and the Academy of Vocal Arts.

Panikkar turned them all down to stay and get his master’s degree at the University of Michigan — and stay near Arvidson. Not too long after, the two were married, and eight years later they have two children — Maria, 5, and Mark, 1. Jane is the music director at Fellowship Baptist.

Whenever Panikkar performs, Jane prays the words of a hymn over him — “Take my voice and let it be consecrated Lord to thee,” substituting his name in the lyrics.

“My wife has been my prayer warrior from the beginning,” Panikkar said. “Every time I open my mouth to sing, I pray that God would be glorified and that I would give my best for His glory, not my ego.”

He said his relationship with Christ has enabled him to sing to glorify God rather than focus on himself. That’s helped as he’s been thrust even more in the limelight through America’s Got Talent.

Panikkar had just gotten home from singing “La Boheme” in Texas when he got a “very strange” email that a crossover tenor group on America’s Got Talent was interested in him. The trio, Forte, had advanced to the next round at their audition then learned one of their members was ineligible to compete because he wasn’t a U.S. citizen.

They found Panikkar while scouring the Internet, and he flew to New York to meet them.

“This was about a week before the second round of America’s Got Talent,” he said. “They invited me into the group, but I waited to fly home and pray with my wife before eventually saying yes.”

After praying about it, he and Jane believed it would put him in a position where he could influence more people for Christ, so he said yes.

Panikkar was “invited to be a part of a very large stage, which happens to be cast with shadows and darkness,” pastor Bert Spann of Fellowship Baptist said. “I believe that is strategically where the Lord wants the brightest lights. Sean is a mouthpiece, a voice, for the Savior He loves.”

With the competition over, Forte is planning to tour and work on an album while the three tenors maintain their personal careers. In the days following the finals, the group has been posting clues on their Facebook and Twitter about what their next move will be, with an announcement pending.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/tenorSeanPanikkar or follow him on Twitter at @seanpanikkar. You can follow Forte at @fortetenors.

— Grace Thornton, assistant editor of The Alabama Baptist, covered Sean Panikkar and Forte’s appearances on “America’s Got Talent” for the Baptist Beacon (www.baptistbeacon.net), newsjournal of the Baptist State Convention of Michigan.

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