If a hole were drilled from Nikiski through the center of the Earth, it would come out near the Republic of South Africa.
“You can’t get any farther away than that,” said Verne Miller, of Nikiski.
Yet that’s where Miller and four others from the central Kenai Peninsula found themselves in August.
An eight-hour plane ride from Alaska to Atlanta, a nine-hour layover and another 20-hour flight later, the group arrived in Johannesburg, bound for Kimberly, South Africa, to share their knowledge of music and love of God with children there.
Mike and Angie Lyons, Yvonne Emery and Susan Shisler, all of Soldotna, joined Miller and two music professors from Texas, Mike and Beverly Steinel, to participate in the Instruments of Change missionary program Aug. 6 to 22.
Instruments of Change is an offshoot of the Covenant Children program, which provides safety, shelter, food, water, basic health care and education for orphans and other at-risk children and adults around the world, according to the program’s Web site.
A South African pastor had another vision of what Covenant Children could provide: music education.
“A music academy for the orphans and the street kids, so after they got out of school they would have something to do besides whatever other activities they had to be involved in, which usually aren’t good,” Miller said.
The decision to go to Africa was as roundabout as the plane trip it took to get there. The founder of Covenant Children, Ardith Blumenthal, and her husband, Andy, came from their home in New York City in March to visit Andy’s relatives on the central Kenai Peninsula. Word of mouth informed Ardith of Birch Ridge Community Church and its music program. She visited the church and gave a presentation about Covenant Children, the Instruments of Change program, and detailed the great need for help in the Republic of South Africa.
“The poverty down there is just pretty severe in a lot of the area,” Miller said. “AIDS is just such a huge devastator. Forty percent of the people are infected, so there’s a lot of orphans or soon-to-be orphans. … Some are fortunate enough to have grandparents, but most of them don’t.”
Only Shisler had prior missionary experience. But they all had musical and educational experience to spare.
Miller played with the U.S. Navy in 1983, the Kenai Community Band from 1994 to 1997, the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra since the early 1990s, the Kenai Dixieland Band and Dixie River Rats since 1994 and has been a member of the pit orchestra for Kenai Performers shows for years.
Mike and Angie Lyons studied music at Northwest Nazarene College in Idaho. He’s now a music teacher at Cook Inlet Academy, where she teaches kindergarten. Yvonne Emery just retired from a long career as a music teacher in Soldotna elementary schools, and now is a part-time vocal teacher at CIA. Shisler has taught music and been involved in the Youth With a Mission program, and did a summer tour with the Continental Singers missionary group years ago.
If it’s a woodwind instrument, Mike Lyons and Miller can play it. Mike and Angie Lyons play percussion, and Angie also plays trombone and sings. Shisler plays guitar, she and Emery play piano and keyboard, and all the women on the trip sing. Mike Steinel, from Texas, teaches brass instruments, so they had all the bases covered
But musical knowledge only goes so far without instruments to bring it to life. So the group set about collecting and repairing donated instruments for kids in South Africa. After a donation drive on the peninsula and Texas, the group was able to transport more than 40 woodwind and brass instruments, nearly 200 recorders, about 15 melodicas (an accordian-type instrument with a keyboard that you blow into to produce sound), nearly 50 pairs of drumsticks, and hundreds of copies of music lesson books that Steinel had written.
To start their music camp, the mission group gave a little concert, and got a sense for the native music used in worship services.
“They lit up. They really liked the music,” Miller said. “They were excited about what we could do. Music is a big part of their worship down there. They just put their whole heart and soul into it, and it was fun to watch.”
Two hundred fifty students from third grade up to high school participated in the music camp. After just a week of instruction, the camp culminated in a concert at a tent-revival worship service with about 1,000 people in attendance.
“That’s how quickly they learned,” Miller said. “…The church was very supportive. Just the look on their faces. I still look at those pictures, and it was just very rewarding.”
With songs like “Hot-Crossed Buns” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” the program would have been more conventional for a U.S. beginning music performance, but the African audience loved it just the same, Miller said.
“It wasn’t any concerto, but they all played and it was really fascinating. They were able to play these songs together. … You get 250 kids together singing at the top of their lungs, 200 recorders, and 45 drummers going at once, it’s pretty awesome, I tell you what.”
The camp and concert was enough to make the group want to go back. Touring the countryside after camp was over and hearing about the additional unmet needs there just put an exclamation point on their desire to continue the mission.
The group is planning another trip from the end of June through early July next summer. They hope to make the program sustainable by developing the older students’ talents, so they can teach the younger ones.
“We saw this as an opportunity to really help out, and give back to an area that really needs the help,” Miller said. “… We just felt that, for us, there was a need there and we were ideally suited to fit that need.”
Even though the group went to give, they got something in return.
“We could learn a lot — we did learn a lot,” Miller said.
“I was just impressed with the spirit of worship people have down there. They’re a very warm people and extremely appreciative of anything you can do for them. It was inspiring for us to see people living in conditions that are so difficult, yet they have a spirit that is very pleasant and upbeat. If we were living like that, we’d all be singing the blues.”
The group is collecting instruments for its next trip. Playable are preferred, but they’ll take and fix whatever they can get. Monetary donations can be made at Wells Fargo Bank in Soldotna, to the Instruments of Change, Covenant Children account.