Paraguay 2009 singing touches the soul
Mennonite Church USAby Ron Byler
Mennonites are Mennonites the world over. When we get together, we want to sing. Last month, more than 5,800 Mennonites from all over the world gathered in Asunción, Paraguay, for the 15th assembly of Mennonite World Conference. Our global brothers and sisters came together to worship and fellowship with each other—and to sing.
One morning, when the lights went out during a worship service, what did we do? We sang.
I got the impression most participants would have gladly given up more of the time we spent listening to sermons and presentations to sing.
Paul Dueck, who grew up in Paraguay and now lives in Canada, led a wonderful worship band throughout the gathering. For many songs, we sang a verse in Spanish, a verse in English and a verse in the song’s language of origin. By the end of the week, assembly goers were easily singing in several different languages.
And the singing didn’t stop at the end of worship. One day after lunch, as I sat in a mostly empty auditorium, I hear (but did not see) the singing of an African choir in one of the balconies. What a beautiful sound it was to hear this choir fully fill the space in this auditorium!
“Praise, I will praise you, Lord,” we sang one evening in worship. “Je louerai l’Eternel. In you, I will find the source of all my joy. Allelujah!”
I have told some of my pastor friends, only half jokingly, that we would be a better church if we sang more and preached less. There is something about music that connects with our souls in a way words seldom do.
A favorite song from the Zimbabwe 2003 world gathering, “Hakuna akaita,” continued to enthrall those gathered in Asunción. “We ran everywhere, we turned round and round, we searched everywhere, but we found none like Jesus,” we sang in Shona, French and English.
What is it about singing that brings us together? I discovered one reason as I sat in worship singing one evening: “God is there with you. El contigo siempre está. God is with you all the time.”
That same evening we sang “Unity,” a chorus by then Mennonite Jerry Derstine (now known in the secular world as J.D. Martin) that I first sang more than 30 years ago. “Leben hier in einigkeit. Jesus, help us live in unity.” I found myself tearing up as the body of Christ around me sang as one.
One day we sang “Praise God From Whom” (606), and instead of making me feel culturally bound, as singing the song sometimes does, this time it was a wonderful release. A North American Mennonite tradition had something to contribute to this large body of Anabaptists.
Another song, written in Spanish by Canadian Bryan Moyer Suderman, showed the infusion of cultures present. Based on the Philippians 2 text for the week, we sang, “Tengán la mente de Cristo, quien por nosotros se ofreció. Let the same mind be within you as was in Jesus Christ.”
Our Paraguay 2009 international songbook says it this way: “Many interpreters will be needed to help us understand each other. But there is one language that brings us together—music. We may not be able to speak each other’s languages but we can sing each other’s songs.”
“Christo, eres el centro,” we sang. “Jesus, be the center.” As I sat day after day, listening to this music and singing with gusto, it was easier to see Jesus at the center, not only within this global body of Mennonites and Brethren in Christ but also within Mennonite Church USA congregations.
“Dalam Yesus kita bersaudara. In Jesus, we are brothers and sisters.” Indeed we are.
Ron Byler is interim executive director of Mennonite Church USA.
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