Saturday, January 31, 2015

We do find some time to sing

One of the funnest, hardest, scariest, most rewarding things we have done on our mission is to put together a senior choir. Yip, that's right. Over the last year and a half a choir made up of mostly 60 and 70-year-olds has sung in firesides all over Tongatapu, and has recorded songs to be broadcast via radio and TV all over the Kingdom of Tonga. I KNOW!!! Unbelievably scary!! But also SOOO much fun.

It all started with President and Sister Tupou. Every Monday from 5:00 to 6:00 pm the local (read ONLY) radio station broadcasts a religious program featuring a message from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. President Tupou does one week, his counselors and stake presidents take the other weeks.

We arrived in Tonga on a Saturday in late August. The following Monday...just two days later!.... we joined President and Sister Tupou at the radio station where Pres. Tupou recorded an inspirational message, and Sister Tupou and I recorded a song to go along with the message. VERY scary! Having never recorded before, and having only seen recording sessions on TV, I thought our recording session would be something like this....We'd get to warm up a little, a sound check would be done, we'd record and hear how it sounded, and maybe re-record until it sounded just right. Nope.....that is definitely not what happened. We warmed up for a few minutes, the man recording us pointed his finger at us, and we recorded our song. They gave us a thumb's up sign, and it was over..done..finished. Just like that. No goodnight kiss....Nothing. I never did get to hear how it sounded on air.

We did that for a few months, and even recorded some songs at Christmas to be broadcast during the
month of December. AND....bonus....Loreen (Pres. and Sister Tupou's oldest daughter) was here for the holidays, so we got to record some lovely women's trios. That was so much fun. This time, however, they decided to record with TV cameras! Holy cow! Surely this time they'd do at least a few takes. Wrong again. We got a few minutes to warm up...the red light on the camera turned on, the camera man counted a few counts, pointed to us, and we were off. No re-do's. Didn't get to see or hear those recordings on the radio/TV either. I think I'm kinda glad!

Those few months of Garth and I singing with the Tupou family led to a request by Pres. Tupou that the missionaries work with their wards and stakes and put together musical firesides. The goal was to help missionary work by having a few songs and a few testimonies from new converts or from people with testimony-strengthening conversion stories. It was supposed to be short, 45 minutes to an hour, with the focus on testimonies. Things took off pretty quickly. There got to be so many firesides that the four of us couldn't keep up, and we knew we needed to enlist the help of others. Thus, the Senior Missionary Choir was born.

We chose pieces that were a little challenging, but also some that we could put together fairly quickly. We weren't the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but we weren't too bad, either. One of our early favorites was "As I Have Loved You," a simplified version of the original choir version that includes the middle part we don't have in the Children's Song Book. I still get goose pimples thinking about the spirit that emanated from the choir as we sang this simple song. Another one we loved to sing was "I Am a Child of God." We sang the Hymplicity version. We would invite any children to join us at the front of the chapel to sing the first verse. Then the senior missionaries would sing the second verse. Then we'd have the congregation join us in the third Tongan. Luckily for the choir, we had some Native-speaking Tongan missionaries who helped us with our pronunciation. I don't think we ever got it completely correct, but the Tongan's were always very kind to us. When we asked one of the Tongan senior missionaries how our Tongan was sounding, with a gentle smile he very kindly, but hesitantly said, "'s okay." So, I guess we've got some work to do. Another of my favorite songs was a duet Garth and I sang..."Savior, Redeemer of My Soul." I love that hymn. Sister Tupou and I also worked up a duet of  "A Young Boy Prayed" and "I Know That My Redeemer Lives." Who cannot feel the spirit when those words are sung. At Christmas time Garth and I got to back up Thomas Tupou, another favorite of ours, "Where Are You Christmas?" LOVE being a backup singer :)
Rehearsal - Elder van den Akker, Dad, Elder Aland

Rehearsal - Elder Simmons, Elder Wood, Elder  Beckstrand, Sister  Burbank, Sister van den Akker's head, Sister Wood, barely Sister Beckstrand's head, Sister Simmons. In the back, Elder Meyers, Elder Dassler, Sister Dassler

Yip, that's me. Not sure why I'm the conductor, but it was fun :)

Rehearsing outside of my favorite stake center - Navutoka Stake Center

Fireside at Fangaloto
L-R: Elder Roe, Elder Harris, Sister Tupou, Elder Beckstrand, Sister
Beckstrand, Thomas, Elder and Sisteir Wood, Jesse, Garth, Sister
van den Akker, Elder van den Akker, me, Elder Moon, Sister Moon,
Sister Meyers, Elder Meyers, Sister Va'enuku, Sister Funaki, Elder
Va'enuku and Elder Funaki

One of the challenges we encountered doing firesides is that many of the chapels don't have pianos. We borrowed the piano from the mission home and transported it back and forth to many a fireside. We always prayed we wouldn't kill the piano either in getting it in and out of the vehicle, or while we were driving. I had nightmares of returning a broken, sad-looking piano back to the mission office after one of our firesides. Luckily, that never happened. Whew!

Sitting on mats outside Lord Fusitu'a's home. His wife can be seen
facing the missionaries - seated all the way to the right

We were invited to sing at two funerals. The first was for a noble, Lord Fusitu'a. Well, this wasn't actually at his funeral. In Tonga when someone dies family and friends gather at the home of the deceased to help support the grieving family. This can last for up to a week. In the case of a noble, each evening for a week different groups are invited to come and pay their respects. We gathered with members of the Nuku'alofa Central Stake at the requested time and spent an hour paying our respects to his wife and other family members. Lord Fusitu'a was not a member of the LDS church, but had great respect and love for the church. It was well-known that when he died he wanted the LDS missionaries to sing at his funeral. We honored that request. The choir sang "As I Have Loved You," and the Tupou's, Garth and I sang "Thy Will Be Done," a beautiful song about always trying to do God's will, even durng difficult times...especially during difficult times.

At the conclusion of our appointed time Lord Fusitu'a's wife broke protocol. She leaned over to the matapule (official spokesperson) and told him she wanted to speak to us. This is just not done in the Tongan culture. If a noble wants to speak to common people, they speak through a matapule. She spoke to us nonetheless. She spoke of her husband's love for the church, and of his desire once he had passed on to be baptized, and his love for the Book of Mormon he owned. She spoke of her love for the LDS church, as well. After she spoke she shook our hands and spoke to many of us. That was WAY outside of protocol. It is an experience we and all those present will cherish.

The other funeral we attended was that of Princess Fusipala. She joined the church many years ago, moved to California, and was a faithful member until she passed away in 2014. Her body was transported back to Tonga where she was buried in her  home village of Fo'ui. Because she was a princess there was much discussion about where to hold her funeral. It was her desire that she have a Mormon funeral. Her wish was honored, and her funeral was held in the Havelu stake center.

The King's dais. A corner of the dais where the casket sat. The
blue chairs are where other nobles sat.
Because of  Tongan tradition and protocol surrounding the relationship between royalty and commoners, a lot of maneuvering was done so that the king could be present at the funeral. The pews were removed from 90% of the chapel, a dais was built so the king could sit higher than the people, and a dais was also made so that the casket containing Princess Fusipala could also be elevated. The plan was for the senior choir to sit in the choir seats so they could sing towards the congregation, who were mostly seated in the gym area. We arrived early and were getting seated in the choir seats. We had three Tongan missionary couples singing in the choir.

The Tongan choir. Others attending the funeral sat behind the choir
in the gym. The Missionary Choir sat just in front of the Tongan choir.
When it became apparent that it was possible that our Tongan missionaries might be seated higher than the king, a mad scramble ensued to find other seating for us. Eventually, a place was found for us, just in front of the Tongan choir who would also be performing. We sang "As I Have Loved You." The spirit was definitely with us as we sang, and could be felt throughout the chapel. The king turned in his seat so he could focus on the choir, and his focus never wavered.

Mourners following the casket to the cemetery, on the streets of Fo'ui

Roses resting on the casket of Princess Fusipala at the cemetery

The casket is surrounded by layers of long cement blocks, then filled in and covered with sand
As the idea of missionary musical firesides grew, the wards and stakes found they could take over. So, the choir didn't get to sing much during the fall and winter of 2014. But, we concluded the year in a blaze of glory. We had a recording session at the radio/TV station early December, and recorded five songs...."Hark! the Herald Angels Sing," "Silent Night" (arrangements from Hymplicity), "Guard Him Joseph" (Sally DeFord), Gentle Mary, Tender Mary (Althouse) and a simplified version of 'O Holy Night."
The men

The women

Front, L-R: Elder van den Akker, Elder Meyers, Elder Murdock, Elder Wood, Sister Dassler, Sister van den Akker,
Sister Burbank, Sister Tupola, me
Back, L-R: Elder Holbrook, Elder Dassler, Elder Beckstrand, Sister Beckstrand, Sister Holbrook, hidden are
Sister Wood and Sister Murdock, Sister Moon, Sister Va'enuku, Sister Funaki and Sister Kinikini.
Not pictured are Elder Funaki, Elder Va'enuku, Elder Moon, and the photographer - Garth

Watching ourselves on monitors after the recording

And the last fireside we sang at was a Family Home Evening in which a youth choir from the Nuku'alofa Central Stake joined us. They sang for us, and we sang for them. A special and touching moment for Garth and I was when Elder Funaki read his Tongan translation of the story "Will the Christ Child Come?" and Garth and I sang one of our very favorite Christmas songs,  "Where Was Jesus?" This song is based on a story written several years ago by our good friend, Gaye Willis, "Will the Christ Child Come?" the same story Elder Funaki told. Another good friend from our stake in Juneau, Russell Thomas, heard this story, but didn't know who the author was. He was inspired to write a song called "Where Was Jesus?" One year for Christmas Gaye's husband, Scott, wanted to give Gaye the sheet music so she could play and sing it whenever she wanted. The only existing version of the song was Russell's original recording of him singing it. I got to help Scott make this gift. I listened to Russell's recording, transcribed it, and Scott input the transcript into a computer program. He was then able to print out a professional looking copy for Gaye. This story and song are very dear to Garth and I. And now Gaye's story has been translated!!!
Brother Sila Fotu conducting his youth choir from the
Tonga Nuku'alofa Central Stake


Soloists singing O Holy Night

Well, that's the tale of the Tonga Nuku'alofa Mission Senior Missionary Choir. I don't know if we'll get to sing at any more firesides or special events in our time remaining here in Tonga. We'll always hold dear our experiences with the many wonderful and talented missionaries who touched many lives with their special spirits and with their beautiful voices.

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