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‘Make me an instrument of your peace’

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guyana plans for a music academy

A group of students in Georgetown, Guyana, takes advantage of the musical instruments and the St. Olaf graduates to make music in their neighborhood. Photos provided by Eric Sayre

When Erv Janssen came to Eric Sayre’s St. Olaf College music education class to speak about a music mission program to Guyana, Sayre wasn’t sure which continent Janssen was referencing. (Confusion between Guyana — a country in South America — and Ghana — an African country — is not uncommon.) But an hour later, Sayre was back in his dorm room, convincing his roommate Michael Murchison that they should head to this small South American nation for six months after graduation.
Such is the impact of an effective speaker and a compelling message.
Janssen’s home congregation, Fellowship Lutheran Church, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, started a program of medical, construction, and literacy mission trips to Guyana in 1996. Most of these tours lasted for a week, with participants offering time in service to the Guyanese people through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guyana (ELCG).
The Lutheran church was established in Guyana in 1743, and is said to be the oldest organized denominational body there, according to Sayre. A Dutch sugar estate manager was instrumental in the establishment of the church. “The people strongly identify with Martin Luther, the person,” said Sayre. And Lutheranism is recognized now as the most diverse religious group in the country.
Guyana is a country with several racial groups: Afro-Guyanese are 30 percent of the population; Indo-Guyanese (people who trace ancestry to East India) are 44 percent; people of mixed race account for 17 percent; and nine percent are indigenous people.
Christians make up 57 percent of the country’s population. Twenty-three percent are Hindu and seven percent are Muslim.

A band of disciples

Fellowship Lutheran Church had added a music ministry to its existing service programs about a decade ago. Students from Lutheran colleges, like St. Olaf and Wartburg, would go to Guyana, spending time primarily in Georgetown, the nation’s capital, and New Amsterdam, the headquarters of the ELCG. Because musical instruction is not offered in the public schools, students would provide very basic education in musical form.

Eric Sayre, second from left, and Michael Murchison, right, with budding musicians from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guyana.

Sayre and Murchison had bigger plans, however. They wanted to stay a longer time so that they could introduce general musical education, as well as training on specific instruments.
To do that, they needed instruments. The leaders of the Guyanese church wanted keyboard and guitar instruction. Sayre and Murchison decided to add brass instruments. (Strings and woodwinds would not do well in the humidity, they feared.) So, using contacts at their home congregations in Minneapolis and Laurel, Maryland, and at St. Olaf, they acquired 16 guitars, 17 keyboards, 15 trombones, three baritones, 19 trumpets, and some random percussion instruments. They shipped the instruments so they would arrive in December; Sayre and Murchison were scheduled to go in January.
The customs process is a slow one, and the instruments arrived late, so the two St. Olaf music majors were forced to teach music classes without instruments, books, stands, and supplies. Using an iPod and speakers, the music teachers taught about dynamics, beat, and emotion. The students listened to Beethoven and Justin Bieber.
In the six months they spent in Guyana, 503 people received musical instruction, about two-thirds under age 18. While 161 learned the basics of the keyboard, and 116 guitar, Sayre and Murchison were seemingly most pleased that 53 Guyanese learned to play a brass instrument.

The song plays on

As Metro Lutheran went to press, Murchison and Sayre, recently returned, received good news. The leadership of the ELCG has asked them to have a more permanent presence. They have been invited to develop a music education program for the Lutheran Lay Academy at church headquarters in New Amsterdam.
Sayre will be looking for four volunteers to make year-long commitments to teach music in Guyana. Students will pay a minimal fee to receive training on an instrument and general music education.
Such is the impact of two energetic young people with a compelling vision.

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