Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Creating a Hymnal, Part One

These days have been exciting and intense. Not only have we opened a new church in the last week, but we have been hosting another visit from Rev. John Thornburg. He’s been meeting with the Cameroon Hymnal editorial team at the Mission Office over the last week and a half.

Every evening, he returns to the house and writes an email to supporters and donors, with some of each day’s highlights. With John’s permission, I am posting some of his news here.

Subject: Day Two in Cameroon

Hello, friends.

I’m comforted by Aesop tonight; slow and steady wins the race. That is our pace; but it’s the pace we need to use. It seems that each hymn, song, or chorus raises new issues to solve, some simple and some complex. Of the 102 pages we need to proof, we've finished 32. The work in the morning proceeds well because we are rested, but the heat and humidity and some of the intensity of our conversation makes the work in the afternoon much harder. I had a bishop once who said that his idea of hell was that it stayed 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon forever. I begin to believe it as I saw the eyes of the team glaze over just about then.

We discover that there are almost always at least two versions of every song we come to, sometimes in both languages. So then it’s a matter of what fits the context.

The day started with a wondrous conversation with Solomon Mbwoge, the one Anglophone on the committee, about the short songs in pidgin which he had brought for inclusion. My favorite is:

Big, big thing Jesus e do-am for me

E butter my bread and e sugar my tea

Solomon then said, when I asked the literal translation, “Jesus has done an enormous thing for me.” Amen to that.


I will likam for waka with Yi (I am happy to walk with Him).

I was also introduced to the fact that the further the team walks into this project, the more they get to what their “heart song” really is, i.e., they get in touch with the deepest things that song does in their lives, and so they want to make certain that all the songs that trigger the deepest things get into the book. So, we keep re-defining the real nature of the book, even as we attempt to move toward completion.

I also had one of the most humbling yet strangely comforting moments of my life this morning. Late yesterday we had looked at “The First Noel,” given that it was available in both French and English. I did a silly, careless thing and didn’t read carefully through the French, presuming that it stuck close to the English. When we got to it, to my horror I realized that it referred to “all the white angels.” Pastor David said that we could not have a hymn that presumed that all angels are white, and of course, he was right. So we excised it on the spot, and I said I was in complete agreement. But the passing of the night convinced me that I must offer a full and complete apology for my oversight. I started the day this morning making that apology, and, as I say, it was quite humbling, yet their graciousness was one of the more uplifting moments of my recent days. Like Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own says, “If it was easy, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

Subject: Day Three in Cameroon

There is a well known acronym in Cameroon; WAWA. It means West Africa Wins Again, and it's used to describe the fact that even if you've made a plan, that doesn't mean the plan can happen. It was a WAWA day.

It was very hot, the building we're working in was so full of noise we could hardly hear each other, two members of the team are battling recurrent illnesses, and the power was out, so we didn't have any real light to work by or the use of a fan. Therefore, it was miraculous that we had the kind of progress that we did.

We've made a major decision about recording. The team was flushed with the realization that we could actually get the book printed in Cameroon (we got that word two days ago), and so we were hoping to have the second miracle of having the recording happen here, especially if we could find a way to empower the team to make the major decisions about what to record. I brought a proposal that would have me making a master recording of the tunes, just my single voice, so that each of the team members has a recording of every tune in the book. That way, they can learn and master the tunes, and gather on their own time and with their own musicians, train additional singers, and then do subsequent recordings. This is meant to address the whole pedagogy issue, i.e., the fact that the book is of little value if we don't have good song teaching.

We still have to build a budget and an action plan for their recording sessions. The team enjoyed the two sessions they had this summer in my absence, and despite the normal tensions of committee work, they are one of the little miracles of the United Methodist Mission in Cameroon, reaching beyond the normal parochialisms in some wonderful ways. Because none of the members of the team has a bank account, or any real hope of having one anytime soon, doing budgets is not a skill they have. All the money they receive is spent immediately. So the work in building a budget is fascinating to them.

Subject: Day Four in Cameroon

Well, the force was with us today. Literally, because we had electricity in the building today, so we could see our notebooks, and figuratively, because the Spirit was alive and active. We worked from 9:00 until 12:30 today, and when I suggested that we only work in the morning, I could see the relief written on their faces.

But the shorter work time practically doubled our creativity. It also didn't hurt that it was cloudy so the temperature was more moderate.

I love the developing sense of empowerment and discernment in the group. When they want to delete something from consideration, they have wonderful reasons, and they seem unafraid to suggest the deletion of things that I brought for them to consider. That's a great relief, because I didn't want them deferring to my suggestions just because I'm paying the bills. When they want to alter texts, it is for solid linguistic and theological reasons. So, it was a great day.

We are now off until 1:00 p.m. Monday. The Anglophones in the group will practice their songs over the weekend for recording purposes, and I have a long talk scheduled with the Anglophone pastor. I asked if he would talk to me about Cameroonian history and politics and he was delighted. I'm very eager for that time with him.