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July 16, 2015

Balkans choir tour brings connections and growth

Written by  Linda Moffett
The Chamber Choir and chaperones stand outside an Orthodox chapel on Mount Morava outside of Korce, Albania. The Chamber Choir and chaperones stand outside an Orthodox chapel on Mount Morava outside of Korce, Albania. Photo by Galen Sauder.

SALUNGA, Pa. -- Thirty-nine young people making up the Chamber Choir of the Mennonite Children’s Choir of Lancaster (MCCL) partnered with Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) on a choral tour to Albania and Bulgaria from June 10 through June 24, 2015.

Eight chaperones joined the choir members, who ranged from ninth-graders to new graduates from high school. Rosemary Blessing, artistic director of the Chamber Choir, said the kids have been preparing for the trip for the good part of a year.

“They have all been singing for years, this trip is just an extension of who they are,” Blessing said.

And sing they did in more than 16 venues, ranging from an orphanage to a retirement home to church services to a grand old theater. “Often they sang spontaneously at tourist sites, on the beach, on the streets, in airports, and in host homes,” Blessing said.

“The tour is an opportunity for the choir to be part of something bigger than themselves,
to be stretched by experiencing new cultures and new environments,” said Blessing. “Cultural immersion can be difficult but also an incredible shaping experience. The difference in economic status of the places they visited was an eye opener. It puts life back home in proper perspective.”

Micah Martin, a rising junior at Ephrata High School, said one of the highlights of the tour for him was climbing a mountain outside of Korce, Albania. At the top of the mountain was an Orthodox chapel.

“We were the only ones there but we started to sing anyway. The acoustics were awesome,” Martin said. Martin said he learned about how powerful music can be, noting that some concert-goers cried during the concerts.

Blessing agreed that the audiences were very responsive. “In one remote country church in Albania, a music leader in the church came up to me after the concert with tears in her eyes. She said she had never heard a live church choir before. She felt very blessed by what she heard.”

The Chamber Choir spent six days in Albania. They sang and interacted with high school students from Lezha Academic Center in Lezhë, Albania, an American school staffed by American teachers with instruction in English.

Madeleine Janz, a 10th grader who attends J.P. McCaskey High School, said the youth they met were very similar to themselves. “There was a lot of talk about test scores and school,” Janz said. “But I thought they were more relational.” Janz said she plans to focus more on relationships and use her cell phone less now that she is back in the U.S.

Chaperone Nick Peterson, pastor of Capitol Presbyterian Church in Harrisburg, Pa., said he was excited to see students make the connection that they can engage in mission here at home.

“Often times young people go to other parts of the world to do things they don’t do at home,” Peterson said. “But we have the same needs in our home context. One student reflected, after singing in a retirement home, that there are retirement homes in the U.S. too. He realized he could serve and bring joy here at home.”

In Korce, choir members met with Eastern Mennonite Missions workers Kostika and Origena Zguri and Kristofer and Rachel Bucher, who are establishing a dairy processing plant. “It was great talking with the missionaries about their work,” Janz said. “They were very raw and real about their experiences and struggles as well as their calling and blessings.”

In Bulgaria, the choir gave concerts in several of the churches where Pat Myers, the founder of MCCL, and her husband Lamar, recently worked with as EMM missionaries. The choir presented concerts in Sofia, Plovdiv, Assenovgrad, Parvomay, Bansko, and Velingrad. Several songs were sung in the Bulgarian language including “How Great Thou Art” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

Chaperone Galen Sauder of Lancaster, Pa., said there was an incredible response to songs sung in people’s national language. “The songs really connected with the audience. I even saw one young person stop texting. Some people were crying.”

The trip was not without challenges. Travel in Albania was often over rough, undeveloped roads. When the choir first arrived in Tirana, the area was experiencing a heat wave. “The air conditioning on the bus broke down, so it was nicknamed ‘the bus of death.’ The kids made the best of it,” Sauder said. The choir also had to learn to accept that schedules were more fluid. And many developed an appreciation for feta cheese which was served at almost every meal.

Jesse Beiler from Narvon, Pa., said their first concert in Bulgaria was very meaningful. “The daughter of our director fell during practice and had to go to the hospital for stitches,” Beiler said. “We had to do the program without our director. It required some improvisation on our part but we really felt God’s presence.”

Beiler said the GO! short-term training he received from EMM prepared him “in a big way for the tour.”

“The cultural training was huge. It helped us to know some of what to expect, even how the houses and bathrooms were set up,” Beiler said. “We learned phrases and words and how to be intentional about what we were doing.”

Choir members had to apply to be GO! participants through EMM by writing essays about their faith journeys and undergo background checks. There were eight training sessions covering discipleship training, short-term mission principles, and fundraising. Former EMM missionaries provided insight into the history of the countries and why each culture is the way it is today. They were prepared for practicalities such as what politeness looks like in the host home. Pat and Lamar Myers introduced Bulgarian customs while Leon and Naomi Zimmerman taught about Albania. Both missionary couples served as hosts in their former countries of service while the choir was there.

Troy Landis, EMM discipleship coach, said the high school students were “receptive and engaged throughout the training. I was impressed by their discussions and the ways they processed information. We discussed the big story of what God is doing in the world and how their trip fits into that.”

Upon returning to the U.S. the choir had a debriefing session where the experiences of the trip were discussed and reflected upon.

“A lot of preparation goes into trips like this and sometimes in life our response is to just keep going. We don’t stop and think about what happened,” Landis said. “A short-term missions trip can turn into a trophy if participants don’t learn, grow, and change. That doesn’t happen unless people are intentional about processing what happened.”

“EMM has available cross-cultural and discipleship training for churches and youth groups,” Landis said. “Sessions can be tailored specifically to each group. They could happen once a month or over a weekend. There’s also a short-term missions guide on the EMM website that I would encourage interested people to use.”

Landis warned that short-term missions trips can have a negative impact if not done correctly.

“Short-term trips can be fraught with a lack of understanding with participants coming across as rude and not honoring to their hosts,” Landis said. “Well done trips are part of a much larger process that brings transformation to the participants and honor to the hosts.”

Members of the Chamber Choir are Danielle Baugher, Jesse Beiler, Chelsea Brubaker, Kayla Bush, Kedidiah Ebersole, Austin Fahnestock, Briana Fahnestock,Jared Gingrich, Joel Gingrich, Emily Good, Kayla Heine, Erica Heisey, Janae Hershey, Julia Hershey, Willis Hershey, Clara Hess, Amy High, Madeleine Janz, Andrew King, Elizabeth Lantz, Mikaela Lantz, Angela Martin, Jevon Martin, Joseph Martin, Micah Martin, Sarah Martin, Andre Nolt, Hans Nolt, John Nussbaum, Naomi Nussbaum, Janell Preheim, Christopher Ritchie, Keturah Shuman, Kayla Smoker, Annie Vogt, Ellis Vogt, Briawna Wenger, Aaron Whetzel, and Micah Zimmerman.

Chaperones were Joshua Blessing, Rosemary Blessing, Galen Sauder, Carissa Heine, Nick Peterson, NiKisha Peterson, Peter Stahl and Hannah Zimmerman.