Singing in Unlikely Places

Reflections from the MCCL trip to Central Europe

The MCCL Chamber Choir gathered for a photo. JON CARLSON
In June 2022, EMM workers and staff led Chamber Choir members from the Mennonite Children’s Choir of Lancaster (MCCL) on a tour to Central Europe. They traveled in both the Czech Republic and Germany. Beyond providing cross-cultural experiences for youth, EMM hopes that these kinds of trips inspire people to find their calling in missions.

It was a cold, rainy day as the choir was preparing for a prison concert. Yes … a concert in a prison.

They had to leave everything in the bus to get into the prison. Only one camera was allowed, but only to take pictures without inmates’ faces. Just like airport security, the disassembled piano and drums had to go through the X-ray machines.

When they were all inside, everything was intimidating. In addition to that fact that there was barb-wire fence everywhere, there was a man wearing a trench coat holding a dog on a leash. The dog had a muzzle on its mouth, and trip participants assumed this was a normal part of the prison security. They were told later that the man was there to provide additional security for the choir.

For Rachel Landes, every day of the tour got better than the previous day, and after every concert she didn’t think she could feel any more blessed than she did at that moment. But when they arrived in the room where they would be singing in the prison, Rachel thought to herself, “Hey, we can’t give a concert like this.”

Finally, they reassembled for the concert. All of the choir members looked out at the people who were sitting in front of them, all men that they knew that had broken the law at one point, and they didn’t know how to feel.

After they sang their first song, all the inmates started cheering, and the atmosphere slowly started changing. Over the course of the hour, looking back, it was almost unbelievable how Jesus personally changed Rachel’s heart, so that by the end of the concert she felt so comfortable, so alive, and so full of praise. It was one of the best experiences of Rachel’s life.

The choir sang a song “You do not walk alone.” Juliana Umble, who returned to the U.S. after having lived in Cambodia with her family, shared during the concert about her experience of feeling alone, and how God was still with her even in those lonely moments.

Juliana shared, “This song could be a song of joy looking back on how God has brought you through a time of isolation, or a song of hope, if you’re in a time of isolation, looking forward.” Prisoners and participants were crying. Everyone could feel the presence of God moving in the room.

EMM worker Vojta Prkna, who helped to arrange the trip, said this was one of the best days of ministry he ever had. Vojta regularly ministers to men in this prison, and this experience seemed to be appreciated by both prison staff and the inmates. Many choir members saw this experience as a significant highlight.

An important part of the trip was to expose young people to other cultures. MCCL has been taking international trips for a number of years, and this trip gave another opportunity for choir members to experience hospitality from people in a new setting.

The choir members stayed with host families. It’s not typical of Czech culture to invite strangers into one’s home, but somehow Vojta and his wife, Stacy, were able to make it happen.

When experiencing a new culture, experiencing cultural differences can be interesting. For example, public water is expensive and Czech people don’t take a shower everyday because of the cost. Choir members weren’t sure how to navigate some of these kinds of cultural nuances: “Is it okay to go to their bathroom in the middle of the night, to use the water. If the host is already asleep … is it okay to go to the bathroom which is right beside their room?”

They were in a Czech town called Česká Třebová for three days, but there was sadness to leave the kind people they had met and the streets that they had explored. According to chaperone Kayley Eshleman, even though she was not able to communicate in words with the host parents that speak Czech and Ukrainian, it was very hard for her to say goodbye to them. The hospitality they received was incredibly special.

One location that provided a meaningful experience for the choir was when they traveled to Teplice. They had the privilege of singing in an old church that had incredible acoustics. Benjamin Glick was both excited and nervous about the experience. Hearing the harmonies ring in the sanctuary was a really special part of that time.

The MCCL tour last summer was an unforgettable experience for all of the participants. They experienced many new things. They found happiness by singing for others, and also experienced how God is with them even if they are in a new place and are afraid to sing in a place that is not familiar to them. They know that no matter what the condition is that they have to face, God will always help

Kezia Gunawan serves as communications intern.