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Cross-cultural awakenings

by Vicky Thomas, R&S Chair for Music in Worship

thomas Going on vacation means “getting away from it all” for people in many professions. But, as a musician, I have often felt that I am most energized by a vacation during which I experience local music-making and worship. My eyes and my ears and my heart are opened by new experiences and this is particularly true when visiting foreign countries. Here are a few vignettes from a trip this winter to Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.

Lost and Found – Hill Town in Central Vietnam
On a beautiful Sunday evening, the overflowing Catholic church was filled with 200 pre-school through high school students wearing colored bandanas. Their youthful voices belted out the liturgy. Parents and elders sat in the back pews or, as I did, outside on plastic stools looking through the many open doors and windows. I hadn’t heard such congregational participation since worship services at ACDA National! But I was definitely lost, unable to participate in worship as I recognized neither melody nor mode nor language.

During his homily the priest cracked jokes, came into the congregation with a mic and engaged the children. I moved to get a better look and found that a screen at the front projected the words of the liturgy. Because the Vietnamese language uses Roman letters, I was now able to follow the words and hum along, despite the challenges of melody or language. The familiar sections of the liturgy took on meaning again!

On the way back to my hotel I constantly thought about engagement and welcoming the stranger to our ways and traditions. What can we do during worship to help newcomers go from being lost to being found?

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – Siem Reap, Cambodia
I knew I was in for musical oblivion when the first song we sang came from the innocuous CCM (Christian Contemporary Music) repertoire of the early 80s. The service was in English and gathered the faithful ex-pats, travelers in town to visit Angkor Wat, and a few Cambodians into a one-room wooden church. The congregation sat on bamboo mats, except for thirty folding chairs around the room’s perimeter for oldsters like me who didn’t fold so well.

Despite less-than-inspiring music, I found myself incredibly affected by the lack of pretense and fuss. The 30-something Cambodian priest vested in full view at the back of the single open room. He was joined by a visiting priest leading 10 congregants from Birmingham, England who borrowed an ill-fitting robe. A minute before the service, the Cambodian priest learned that a Jesuit teacher from Korea was there with six students, so he was pulled off the floor and asked to vest and lead as well. This triumvirate worked seamlessly together to lead the mongrel congregation without any fuss or extended preparation. The spirit simply moved through a group of formerly unconnected people. It made me think again about how I get caught up in the little things and how hard I need to work on keeping open and flexible about what is important.

Prepared to Share – Yangon, Myanmar
Though I had tried to arrange to visit a rehearsal of Myanmar’s top chorus ahead of time, no answer came to Myranmarmy request, so I took my chance and walked into the music school to inquire. (First learning of the day: take a chance and just show up.) Myanmar is just pulling out of decades of isolation from the world and desperate poverty. This top choir rehearsed in a VERY basic room with a concrete floor and little furniture. Nevertheless, they sang with gusto arrangements of American popular artists like Bruno Mars as well as oldies like Blue Moon and Burmese folk tunes arranged by the conductor.

The conductor was absent that day so the chorus calmly rehearsed themselves. Then came a question, “Would you like to share anything?” I was totally unprepared; my decline was graciously received.

The next night I didn’t make that mistake when visiting the young adult rehearsal of a Baptist congregation. I had thought about what I might want to share. What could I teach lacking language ability and without printed music? Last year I had taught my congregation Woza Nomthwalo Wahko, a South African canticle in four-parts, by rote so I thought I would try that.

Sure enough, the conductor immediately asked if I would like to teach the choir anything. I enjoyed doing warm-ups with them and having the choir stretch and move. Since young men and women often don’t engage directly, lots of giggling took place as boys and girls encountered each other while walking in rhythm and singing. Woza requires movement so it was a natural segue to teaching it and within 10 minutes we were dancing and singing together in harmony.

I had earlier fallen into our culture’s pattern of a divide between performer and observer. I was unprepared to give and, rather, expected to receive the gift of others making music. How much richer my experience was when I put myself out, risked debacle and was prepared to share.

Contact Vicky Thomas HERE