Short as it may have been, the Martin Luther College Choir’s first-ever trip outside this country opened up a new vistas for some MLC students.
Said one of the participants in the trip, Jon Laabs, “It gave me a whole different perspective... There is life beyond the United States.”
The MLC Choir ventured into Mexico during its annual spring tour, which this year also included Arizona and Texas.
The choir held concerts in the cities of Torreon and Monterey and a squatters’ community, Zaragosa Sur, all the while associating with local audiences and sampling local life, as represented in foods, customs and daily routines.
The annual trip is part of the mission work conducted by the college — seeking to “expose people to the Gospel in song,” said choir director Kermit Moldenhauer.
The journey into Mexico was no exception — you are all “missionaries for a day,” one of the choir’s guides, himself a long-term missionary in Mexico, told the students.
Everything about this trip was different from previous trips by the choir, said the students — starting with the bilingual programs and song translations.
The choir ended up singing in four languages, English, Latin, German and Spanish.
Beside the opportunities for cultural enrichment, the Mexican trip brought unexpected “emotional highs” resulting from a warm reception that transcended the language barrier.
Of the 52 choir members that went to Mexico, only seven were Spanish speakers. The translators’ resources were spread thin, yet communication did not prove difficult.
Even when performers and audience did not share a language, they could read reactions through facial expressions.
One MLC student recalled a 25-minute “conversation” with a young Mexican man. Neither spoke the other’s language, yet the two were able to communicate perfectly, with hand motions, expressions, and a limited number of words... This, said the students, happened over and over.
The performances were received in “a wonderful way,” said choir member Destinee Jaeger.
The audiences sang along; they lingered long to “talk” after the concerts; they asked for autographs on programs, making choir members feel like star performers.
The choir tried indigenous cuisine. They report that: deep-fried grasshoppers taste much like beef jerky; the chicken and mole can be described as chocolate-covered chicken; and breakfast gordittas are an excellent way to wake up.
The students also sampled a difference in driving styles and road rules; long waits for motel rooms; and a more relaxed concept of time.
Said their guide, “the key word is, flexibility.”
About 350 people heard their concert in Torreon, of whom just about 20 were members of the mission-church congregation sponsored by WELS (the synod that runs MLC).
Crowd estimates proved more difficult in Monterey, with its more established congregation of some 110 people. The church that hosted the concert there is in the center of town, so people kept strolling in and out, listening for a time, snapping pictures...
The most interesting venue for a concert may well have been Zaragosa Sur, a shanty town of pallet, cardboard and tarp houses, that its inhabitants improve with concrete structures as they increase their wealth.
In Zaragosa Sur, the choir performed in what can loosely be described as a community building doubling as a worship site — a small shelter of pallets and tar paper roof, with concrete seats and a concrete altar.
It was the first time the choir saw a community of this kind — and many had an ambiguous reaction.
On one hand, it helped them appreciate their own blessings more fully; on the other, there was a realization that the people of Zaragosa Sur lead “normal,” unexceptional lives.
As their missionary guide said, the people of Zaragosa Sur “have everything they need: food, clothing, shelter... Don’t feel sorry for them — they don’t want you to...”
The experience gave the students, as some said, “a whole new perspective” — a new appreciation for “the blessing of Christianity across cultures” and for “the power of the Word and the power of music.”
Dr. Kermit Moldenhauer directed the Martin Luther College Choir at Divina Gracia, which is a small shelter that serves as a church in Zaragosa Sur, outside Torreon, Mexico.