Farmington Baptists sing in Belarus

Group will sing in Russian, record CD

By DONNA HICKMAN\Daily Journal Staff Writer

FARMINGTON - A lighted cross above them, they sing the timeless message of Jesus Christ, sometimes in two languages.

"Spirit sing in us, Spirit live in us, Spirit make us one," is the message sung by 30 members of First Baptist Church in Farmington. It's a song echoed by their fellow Baptists thousands of miles away in Belarus which was once a part of the Soviet Union.

The singers will combine their songs next week in concerts in four cities as part of the "Fresh Wind" tour.

"We have been preparing to some degree for the past two years," said John Jackson, music minister who will lead the group. "We will be giving six concerts in Belorussian Baptist churches in four cities and recording a CD from two of those concerts."

The Farmington church, along with others in Missouri, has partnered with Belorussian Baptists for more than 13 years. During that time, the local church has helped fund the completion of a church building in Ushachi, given financial support for the pastor and staff, purchased vehicles and a piano and funded a three-year scholarship for a seminary student. In addition, they've facilitated the printing and distribution of a Russian language hymnal, hosted leadership training events for pastors, seminary students, and music leaders, held Sunday School and Vacation Bible School leadership training tours, and here at home, they've twice hosting the Belorussian National Choir concert in Farmington.

"We've never had a group this large go on an international mission," said Pastor Bill Miller proudly. "I know everyone who hears them will be touched."

Learning to sing in Russian has been a challenge for these sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. Dan Upchurch and his family have helped. The former pastor of First Baptist in Bismarck has been a missionary in Belarus for the last five years.

"We've helped them to be able to sing the language and to help them adapt it to the music," said Upchurch. "They will find Belarus much like 1950s America. Though they don't have much, their calling card is hospitality."

In fact, Linda Davis said they've been told not to compliment any item in the homes where they will stay because their hosts might just give away what their guests like.

"I've been to Belarus twice and I find they are more open to hearing the message of Jesus Christ," said Davis as she sorted the navy blue T-shirts the group will wear. "They've been intimidated for so long."

She said after visiting the country, she felt so humbled she didn't go shopping for awhile when she got back home.

"They have nothing and we have such an abundance," she said. She's packed peanut butter and chocolate chips to give to missionaries in Belarus, along with scented candles for the women in whose homes they stay, ball-point pens and notepads.

On a scale outside the sanctuary, Jessie Stephens kept a watchful eye on the scales as Dr. Darrell Griffin carefully weighed a big red bag.

"It's 50 pounds!" said Stephens, noting that it was supposed to be no more than 44.

"That's Jeanie's stuff," protested Griffin, referring to his wife who will accompany the choir on piano.

"It's mostly gifts," Jeanie explained, "along with some trail mix and peanut butter."

Since another piece of their luggage was under the limit, the two knew they could shift things around before their departure Monday morning.

"I don't sing," Dr. Griffin said, "But I'm looking forward to working with the people and sharing these experiences."

Some of the choir members will do double duty playing instruments in an orchestra with Belorussian musicians. The accompanists may have an easier job than the singers.

"You can play it in either Russian or in English," said Jackson during the group's last rehearsal Wednesday. The choir laughed.

Is it easier to sing in Russian or in English?

"You just can't tell when we mess up in Russian," said Don Vieth, who sings tenor. He's been a choir member for more than 30 years.

"Music is the universal language," he said.

They sing the old hymns "How Great Thou Art" and "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," in English and in Russian. They sing about the "majesty and glory" of God's name. Though the Russians may say it differently, they believe the message is the same.

"Was that OK?" asks Jackson as he turns to the missionary when the choir finishes singing "Merciful God" in Russian. When Upchurch says it was good, some of the choir members cheer.

Jackson believes the Belorussians are having as much trouble learning to sing in English as his group is having in learning Russian.

Carol Grix has been a choir member for about five years. Her husband, Dr. Gary Grix, signed on for the trip to take pictures and offer moral support. Now, he's singing, too.

"I'm taking toys and stickers for the kids in the churches where we sing," said Carol.

The trip is the fifth one Jackson has made to Belarus. He says it has given him an appreciation for missionaries and a new perspective on his faith.

"It has helped me to see clearer God's work in our world and given me a greater understanding of what our role should be as followers of Jesus Christ in relation to a lost world," he said.

As the choir ended its last rehearsal, Upchurch led them in prayer. He spoke in Russian as his son, Johnny, interpreted. He thanked God for the group's opportunity to "go and share their hope, their faith and expect great things from God as he works through them."

Freedom of religion that came when Belarus first became a country in the early 1990s has become more restrictive with a new president. Jackson said the only place Christianity can be shared or sung about is within the walls of the nation's churches.

"They cannot witness on the street corners or give out tracts," he said. "We cannot sing outside the churches."

Miller believes while his congregation has always given financial support to missions, many of them are motivated now to go and do the work they've helped to fund.

The choir will sing in a worship service at 6 p.m. Sunday at First Baptist where the rest of the congregation will offer prayers for their trip. Monday morning they leave from Chicago for a 16-hour plane trip that will put them in Minsk, Belarus at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday. They'll return home June 14 and talk about their experiences in worship at 6 p.m. June 18.