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Reminders of tragedy, songs of renewal

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Concert Choir tours eastern and central Europe

by Adam Gaeddert

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. -- What is most valuable about the Bethel College Concert Choir’s three-week European tour is that it was so many different things. From a snowball fight at a ski resort near Sarajevo to a chilling walk through Buchenwald concentration camp, the trip was full of opportunities for us to learn about the region’s history and culture and about each other. The 43-member choir spent this past Jan. 3-25 traveling through four European countries and 16 different cities. We performed 11 concerts and dispersed into homes of German host families four nights.

"It was a good cross-cultural experience," said junior Aaron Linscheid. "But it was also a good chance to reconnect with other Mennonites and learn a bit about my heritage."

The trip is a Bethel College tradition. Every four years, the Concert Choir travels to Europe during interterm. Tour coordinator Merle Schlabaugh, professor of German, plans each itinerary to include towns with substantial Mennonite populations or with Bethel connections.

For instance, we sang at a Mennonite church in the small town of Bechterdissen, Germany, with a congregation of 750 members. We visited the town of Weierhof, Germany, founded by a Mennonite farmer named Peter Krehbiel in the 18th century. We also performed for more than a dozen former participants in the exchange program between Bethel and Bergische Universität in Wuppertal, Germany.

We saw lots of churches and went through lots of museums. We saw the houses and concert venues of many famous composers and writers, including Bach, Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Goethe, Schiller and Kafka. We toured Wartburg Castle, where Martin Luther lived while translating the New Testament into German.

The tour also gave us several chances to witness the effects of tragedy. Sarajevo was under brutal siege from 1992-1995 and signs of destruction are still visible. We spent an afternoon in Dresden, which was leveled by Allied bombers during World War II and has been almost completely rebuilt. We walked around Buchenwald concentration camp near the city of Weimar, Germany.

The most vivid example, however, was in Bad Reichenhall, a small German town near the Austrian border. Only hours before we left Kansas on our tour, the roof of an ice skating rink in Bad Reichenhall collapsed, killing 15 people, mostly children. Our concert raised 800 euros for the families of the victims.

"I was honored that they were willing to let us perform, but still felt very out of place," Aaron told me. "I felt like it was a little too soon, but I was glad the people were willing to make an attempt at returning to normalcy."

Our concerts generally ran about an hour and a half. During interludes, individual choir members and ensembles performed songs prepared outside of concert choir rehearsals.

We performed a diverse selection of pieces, ranging from a Serbian Orthodox liturgy to African American spirituals. Many of the pieces, though, involved the themes of suffering and hardship. Bach’s motet "Komm, Jesu, Komm" is an invocation of the Savior at a time when one’s body is weary and one’s life is difficult. The spiritual "Climbing Up the Mountain," arranged by Moses Hogan, is about God’s uplifting and renewing strength in the midst of earthly suffering.

However, this tour was far more about hope and renewal than about destruction and hardship. The countries we visited have been burdened with the reputation of war and political tension for the last century. But the places we saw and the people we met indicate that these regions are striving for a peaceful future. Many former Eastern Bloc cities now have lively tourist economies and flourishing cultural scenes. Sarajevo is now a safe place to walk the streets, even after dark. In Bad Reichenhall, the community has banded together to grieve, to pray and to donate money to the families of the victims of the disaster.

Of course, the trip was also a chance for us to enjoy the thrill of new experiences. Traveling from city to city on a tour bus, we would always take time for "Tales of the Tour," a chance for choir members to share stories from the previous city with the rest of the choir. These tales were invariably accompanied by outrageous laughter.

By the time the last concert rolled around, many of us could strongly identify with the lyrics of one of our songs, entitled "Precious Lord": "I am tired, I am weak, I am worn...." More importantly, though, we returned with stories to tell and a taste of eastern and central European culture.

Europe 2006 Concert Choir personnel were: seniors Megan Herman, Kingman; Sara Hobbs, Newton; Scott Janzen, Henderson, Neb.; Hannah Klaassen, Whitewater; Joel Krehbiel, Moundridge; David Nance, Dallas, Texas; Margaret Penner, West Chester, Ohio; Nick Schrag, Marion, S.D.; Christa Taylor, Kidron, Ohio; Barry Turner II, McCook, Neb.; and Chelsea Vaught, Henderson, Neb.; juniors Sara Adrian, Butterfield, Minn.; Erinne Coit, Wichita; Jon Dean, Buhler; Jerel Fast, Boulder, Colo.; Julie Fromm, Newton; Adam Gaeddert, Hutchinson; Kelsey Goertzen, Henderson, Neb.; Tyler Goertzen, Hesston; Jeff Janzen, Fresno, Calif.; Heidi Johnson, Topeka; Ben Kliewer, Buhler; Aaron Linscheid, North Newton; Sara Miller, Mount Hope; Shawn Rath, Moundridge; Tony Redelfs, Mansfield, Texas; and Caitlin Welch, Lawrence; sophomores Caitlin Buerge, Kansas City, Mo.; Chelsea Chaffin, Eudora; Kate Duncan, Kansas City, Kan.; Andrew Findley, Burlington; Katie Franz, Lawrence; Dan Graber, Marion, S.D.; Kate Larson, Clay Center; Joel Linscheid, North Newton; Andrea Nickel, Windsor, Colo.; Caley Ortman, Marion, S.D.; Bill Pruett, Holton; Kiley Schmidt, Newton; Laurie Steffen, Cunningham; MeLissa Warkentine, Chandler, Okla., and John Wiens, Goessel; and freshman Brittany Baker, Kingman.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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