By John Thornburg, Special Contributor…
BUEA, Cameroon—“Music comes naturally to Cameroon. When we are happy, we sing. When we are sad, we sing. Music is speaking our language. When the music of the U.S. and Cameroon collides, there is an explosion!”
So said the Rev. Ekoka Molindo, pastor of Hope United Methodist Church in Buea, at the conclusion of a recent seminar on musical skills held in this city of 90,000 on the slopes of Mt. Cameroon.
At the event, a team of six representing Texas United Methodists and the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) joined 65 Cameroonian pastors and laity to inaugurate a national music ministry for the Cameroon Mission Initiative.
In the midst of the five-day seminar, the team from the U.S. gathered around Jean Pierre Mviana, the young musician who will lead the ministry. They laid hands on him, and all those attending the seminar prayed that God would empower the new ministry. In response, Mr. Mviana shared his dream of building a training school for musicians that would attract students not only from West Africa, but also from the United States.
The event in Buea was the latest chapter in an unfolding story of cooperation between Texas Methodists and GBGM. In 2005, the Rev. Wesley Magruder, then the mission superintendent for Cameroon, invited me to join a team of Cameroonians in the creation of the first hymnal and worship book for Cameroon Methodism. Wes and I are both members of the North Texas Conference.
I spent four years traveling back and forth to Cameroon as the hymnal’s editorial team worked in tandem with the pastors in developing an overall theological grounding for the mission. When it was time to publish the hymnal, I received an offer from Jorge Lockward, director of GBGM’s Global Praise program, to partner in the production of the hymnal. If you look in the dictionary under “win/win,” this partnership is what you’ll find. And since the General Board of Discipleship was also a production partner, maybe you can call it “win/win/win.”
Because the editorial team decided to include several songs in the hymnal that were unknown to the United Methodists of Cameroon, recordings were needed to teach the melodies, and once again, Mr. Lockward and I pulled together the best resources of Texas Methodists and GBGM. Some of the songs from those recordings now appear in the resources of the Global Praise program.
In the last recording session, the Rev. Nkemba Ndjungu, the current mission superintendent, noticed that the bass guitar player in the band showed unusual leadership ability, and he wondered out loud whether this man, Jean Pierre Mviana, might be a strong candidate to begin a national music ministry. Through the scholarship resources of GBGM, and the generosity of University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, Mr. Mviana was sent to a training school in Kampala, Uganda, for two years of musical study. University UMC has pledged to pay Mr. Mviana’s salary for the next three years, and the church’s director of music, Marc Erck, will be one of the main sources of encouragement for Mr. Mviana’s unfolding dream.
While in Uganda, Mr. Mviana endured malaria and battled with homesickness. Writing to me at Christmas of 2011, he said, “The holiday has been hard on me but the big lesson I learned is that Jesus is really the best insurance one can have in this world. He has been faithful to me.”
Toward the conclusion of Mr. Mviana’s time in Kampala, plans emerged for a gathering that would both inaugurate the national music ministry and teach basic musical skills. Though originally conceived as an event for six Americans and 40 Cameroonians, generous gifts both from individuals and churches in Texas and from GBGM made it possible to expand to 65 participants.
The seminar brought together all of Cameroon’s pastors, musicians from most of the churches, and the members of the mission’s evangelistic band, Good Seed. Meeting in a 6,000-square-foot banqueting hall, participants could receive instruction on keyboard, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, drums, song leading or choral direction. A gift from GBGM made it possible to buy five keyboards, six guitars and all the accompanying amplifiers, cables and stands.
Since we were all practicing in the same room, I would have to call it a musical Pentecost. The energy was amazing. The people of the mission are only together once a year at the annual meeting, so an event like this was a special delight. The singing and dancing was so joyful. And those instruments will now be lent out to congregations that can specifically demonstrate how they would use an instrument to enhance their worship.
The Good Seed band will be one of the central parts of the national music ministry. Made up of eight men and women from Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, they were co-founded by Mr. Mviana and Sylvie Ndjungu, the daughter of the mission superintendent. She now lives and works in Dallas, leading a choir of the children of Burundian refugees and speaking on behalf of the band.
The band will travel from city to city both to do evangelistic rallies and to encourage local church musicians. “God is in the process of transforming people,” said Alain Efouba Mvondo, one of the members of Good Seed. “In the nightclubs even, they sing church music so that no one can say they have not been evangelized.”
As polished as the band is, their ministry is not without obstacles. Only two of the members of the band own the instruments they play, so band members must borrow practically all the equipment they use. The newly purchased instruments will help, but other needs remain. Because of the overall poverty of the nation, and the struggle most of the churches have to pay even basic expenditures, salaries for musicians are rare. “Elsewhere we get paid for musical talent, but there’s no salary in the church,” said Armand Bihina, the band’s drummer. “Sometimes there are no instruments. But music is 90 percent responsible for bringing people into the church.”
While Mr. Bihina expressed worry about paying musicians, another seminar participant worried that Cameroon’s finest musicians start in the church but often leave.
“All the popular musicians came from the church. Maybe they can’t find professional music in the church, so that’s why they leave. The problem in the church is that we’re happy to sing standard praise songs, but we can go further than that,” said Collins Molindo, choir director at Hope UMC in Buea, and son of the church’s pastor. “We need a mastery of what we know to bring out the best in the church. Then people won’t leave.”
Mr. Mviana is already thinking about getting additional musical training for others. “I was glad to be sent to Uganda, but will I be the last?” he asked Mr. Ndjungu as the latter addressed the seminar participants.
When the seminar ended, our team of Americans returned to Yaoundé to prepare for the trip home. On the evening before our departure, we met with Mr. Mviana and underscored our trust in him and desire to remain in partnership. “Now we work for you,” said Jorge Lockward, speaking for the team.
Forty-eight hours after returning from Cameroon, I received a document from Mr. Mviana called “Vision 2018,” outlining the dream of a permanent music school and a large worship venue called The Temple of Praise.
Kelsey Johnson, communications director at Westbury United Methodist Church, Houston, who was part of the team along with her husband, DeAndre, summed up the experience. “Our hearts are still halfway in Cameroon and we are left suspended in between. DeAndre keeps returning to the choruses we learned there, singing them over and over in our home. I keep hearing the prayers echo in my mind. We miss our friends from Good Seed and the Mission, we miss the team, we miss the worship.”
The Rev. Thornburg is a longtime UM elder and a hymn composer. He recently joined the staff of the Texas Methodist Foundation.