Singing the Journey


"The whole purpose of travel is to come home."
–Attributed to Chinua Achebe

A favorite audio-visual experience for me in England is the tall town clock-tower in Southampton. I’ve tried to schedule tours to be there at four o’clock in the afternoon, when the bells ring out a tune I grew up with at the little rural Mennonite mission of Finland in southeastern Pennsylvania: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” I muse on its author Isaac Watts’s justification of what has brought me to his hometown: “Nothing tends so much to enlarge the mind,” he wrote, “as travelling, that is, making visits to other towns, cities, or countries beside those in which we were born and educated.” In his typical hortatory hymn-meter he recommends a generous attitude for travelers:

Seize upon truth where’er ’tis found,
On Christian or on heathen ground,
Amongst your friends, amongst your foes,
The flower’s divine where’er it grows,
Neglect the prickle and assume the rose.

To this advice I would add a variously quoted folk dictum, “Du must dich nach dem Land und nit das Land nach dir richte.” Roughly meaning: You must judge yourself in terms of the country you are visiting, rather than judging it according to your own ideas. Not judging, but linking the new that we encounter with the old that we have known, is one of travel’s true values. For me that has often happened in musical terms.

Southampton Bell Tower

Southampton Bell Tower

I have led Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage tours for four decades. I love my dear innocents abroad, and they have certainly supplemented my income. Some of them, of course, would rather shop where their faith heroes bled than learn history, but may also drop a tear when holding hands at this or that shrine, while singing “How sweet would be their children’s fate / If they like them could die for Thee.” The linkage between who they have been and what they are now encountering becomes an unexpected physical sensation.

I suppose I have been prone to wry comments on the assumption that Eurasia is just waiting to be charmed with our unspoiled a cappella singing. I was ashamed to hear an indignant Muslim sputtering at a group of my people testing the acoustics of a historic mosque: “This is not a theater!” Yet our naiveté has occasionally led to genial moments. One such was our four-part caroling of the Haydn-esque “Come thou almighty King” in the vast, echoing Aula of the Emperor Constantine in Trier, the oldest city north of the Alps. I had been hesitant to ask the souvenir stand attendant whether we might fill the cavernous palace, from which the western half of the Roman Empire was once ruled, with the provincial Sunday morning strains of a Pennsylvania Mennonite meetinghouse. But the effect was precious. The lingering post-Amen resonance of about four seconds rained back down on us the recognizable timbres of individual voices, our final chord dying away with such sweet acuity that the dubious attendant pronounced our performance too “kurz.”

In contrast to this success was another group’s insistence, on a Sunday morning in Brussels, that we celebrate our daily devotions in the baroque St. Michel et Gudule Cathedral. Pleased with our own cheerfulness, we sang on and on, oblivious of keeping the Cathedral Choir waiting to rehearse in place for the imminent celebration of mass. The pristine harmonics of Orlando de Lassus that then replaced our hoarse hymns were, to me at least, a humbling rebuke. But by then most of my pilgrims, gratified to have shared their witness, had triumphantly exited the portals.

I have known nothing quite comparable to singing “So nimm denn meine Hände” within the vacant (though still decorated) church walls at Wymysle/Wionczemin in Poland’s Vistula River valley with tourists whose Mennonite grandparents had sung there before the catastrophe of 1939.

Wymysle Exterior

Wymysle Exterior

Wymysle Interior Decor

Wymysle Interior Decor

Again, there could hardly be a greater musical contrast than between two of our usual Swiss tour stops. In the raw “Anabaptist Cave” of Zurich’s Oberland it seems appropriate to sing “What is this place?” Hours later we may stand in Switzerland’s most ornate church edifice at Einsiedeln. There, under rococo vaults of roseate filigree, we can listen to the medieval chant of Benedictine monks, followed by a somber “Salve Regina” sung in the chapel of their “Black Madonna.”

One of my life’s most memorable musical/linguistic/spiritual experiences came in 1972, in a crowded evening church service at Alma Ata in Kazakhstan. Our MCC-sponsored choir had been sent to encourage oppressed Christian friends in the Soviet Union. The preaching and singing that night were mostly in Russian, with some German. From time to time in the interstices of the long service various choirs sang. While one of the sermons was unfolding, a choir director began motioning to us, obviously inviting our choir to sing with his. He handed us their hymnbook, with gestures suggesting that we were to pick a song we knew. Leafing through the Cyrillic titles, I could recognize no words, but as I looked at the musical notes I recognized those for “Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior.” Quickly writing down the familiar English words, I passed them around on a note to our choir members, alerting them to be ready for the next choir session.

When it came, the Russian chorister jointly beckoned his and our choirs to stand. The little organ gave us the chord, and the director raised his hands. As they swept downward, the combined singers, in their two languages, began as one voice. It was as though we had sung together familiarly for decades, and rehearsed jointly for this very service. The instant, intimate sensation of distance-transcending fellowship, blending our two stories of faith into a harmonious whole, exploded with the triumphant four-part refrain, “Up from the grave he arose.” O Communism, we felt, where is thy victory?

A poignant travel-related regret takes me back to the tourist-buzzing Cloth Hall in downtown Krakow, with its long, double sequence of arty alcoves. Emerging from the central hall on my way back to our bus, I was intrigued by the elemental strum of what sounded like cat-gut guitar strings coming through the market chatter. The source proved truly mesmerizing: a tiny brown creature, propped doll-like, almost prone, playing a toy-sized instrument. Should God have allowed such a shrunken caricature of the human model? The tunes were ordinary, but one had to look twice before realizing that this was not a tame monkey but a miniature person who in another era would likely have been offered in a circus or hidden in an asylum. It seemed almost shameful to stare, but the cheerful music was an invitation to do so. Unfortunately, I had been only briefly on the scene when my co-tour leader spotted me, loudly summoning me to leave instantly for the bus. I did so regretfully, without having dropped a coin, bought a CD or, uncharacteristically, taken a slide. But the musician, the scene and the sound haunted me from that moment. On a subsequent visit to Krakow I asked about the little performer in vain, and will rue for the rest of my life my loss of that unique sound and sight for the sake of saving three minutes.

A non-musical but likewise unforgettable moment in the earlier mentioned singing trip of 1972 unfolded outside our bus in a Central Asian city. A scattering of curious Muslim pedestrians stood nearby as I found my seat toward the back of the bus. When it seemed there was a disturbance involving one of our Pennsylvania Mennonite singers, as a chaplain I went out again to investigate, and did indeed find a worrisome confrontation. A Muslim man was gesticulating excitedly, pulling a finger across his throat, placing his forefingers at the side of his head to indicate what looked to me like the Devil’s horns, and then trying to lure our man Sam to come with him. Fearing an ominous religious conflict, I quickly asked the Intourist guide what was going on. “Well,” she laughed, “this man has taken a liking to your Sam. He’s inviting Sam to go home with him, where he will kill a goat to make a friendly feast.”

Leading my several European tours with Old German Baptist Brethren, I found them people of good will and good company. They sing mid-19th century American folk hymns with antique tempo, harmonies and mordents. They attract instant attention by their unique capes, coverings and beards. It’s amusing to watch blasé Europeans freezing into concentration when our advancing column of apparent Amish rounds a street corner. Diners explain the meaning of this exotic sighting, correcting each other with, “Nein, nein, nein!” or “Ja, ja, ja.” A beatific smile wreathes the face of an upper middle class matron rushing up to say, “I must know who you are.” In contrast, a seated man remarks sardonically that these are simply American Amish. He rejects my statement that there is actually “kein Verbindung” between the Amish and these people other than their “ähnliche Tracht.” He laughs dismissively since, having personally viewed the film Witness, he knows his facts. As for the well-fed Brethren themselves, they stride along with heads held un-Amishly high, confirmed in their two-kingdom Weltanschauung by every act of attention, whether pro or con.

It has been my assignment to help my travelers see. While some are so attentive that they need little help, others need to be reminded to guard against paying more attention to the pebble in the shoe than the Alps before us. One of our tourists seemed to specialize in photographing neat Swiss manure piles. As our boat plowed up the Rhine on a gorgeous sunny day, the storied sequence of Roman vineyards and turreted castles was ignored by a girl on the deck totally absorbed in painting her toenails. The Lorelei song is often ignored.

Then there is a type of bus-rider who, within seconds of having glimpsed something for the first time in his life, begins an extensive explanation of it to his fellow passengers. A real pro can actually do so from a seat at the back. This ability to be verbal on any topic has produced amusing results when I give my travelers what I call a “Twenty Question” quiz at the end of a tour. I have seen a person who had commented on everything while listening to little, so flummoxed that he threw down his test paper after four questions, while quieter fellow travelers were getting most of them right. My wife and I occasionally chuckle in remembrance of a persistently opinionated pilgrim we were taking through Alsace. Standing in front of the world-renowned Issenheimer Altar in Colmar’s Musée d’Unterlinden, he demanded irritably, “If this is as famous as you claim, why haven’t I ever heard of it?”

Of course I’m not spared the memory of a traveler’s faux pas or two of my own. Standing beside a grapefruit tree in Bolivia in 1980, I spoke to its owner with the help of a Mennonite Central Committee interpreter. The gross size of the fruit–like a small volleyball – was eye-opening, the taste and texture surprisingly delicate. The samples I and my wife had had for breakfast had enormous, tender sections, almost a meal in themselves. Why, I wondered, didn’t fruit like that simply drive the usual smaller version out of the market? If it were imported, for instance, to my Pennsylvania homeland for retail sale, it might be a real moneymaker in a Lancaster County farm market. I told my interpreter to ask why, with such a jumbo fruit, the Bolivian campesino had only one tree. His answer, in Spanish, was disarming: “Because I’m stupid.” Silenced, I’ve reflected ever since on how, in that context, I felt stupid too.

In Bolivia

In Bolivia

In my travels I have learned to appreciate griots (a French term), persons who are archives of their natal cultures and stories. A griot has linguistic access to a vernacular tradition, lives with its lore as well as its chronology, never runs out of stories, does not depend on, but may faithfully support, organized institutions, may have but is not limited to academic training, does not deal in standard or abstract explanation, tends not to be politically mono-polar, has time for you, and impacts you with seminal understandings. In American Anabaptist traditions I think, for instance, of John C. Wenger, Robert Kreider, Amos Hoover, David Kline and others.

In the southern hemisphere there is Peter Klassen of Paraguay, whose multi-volume accounts of his people link three continents and interweave their drama of resettlement with that of the people into whose landscape they had brought European hymns. Unlike what happened in my Pennsylvania, the Mennonite arrivals in the Paraguay of the ’Twenties and ’Thirties did not ignore or dismiss their impoverished “Indian” neighbors, but shared with them, sometimes incongruously, their faith, farming and even music. In response to my inquiry, Klassen sent me a cassette of their poignantly imitative versions of such as “Amazing Grace.” The Mennonite World Conference in Paraguay in 2009 gave me the opportunity to enjoy this inimitable musical convergence, and to have my photograph taken with the harpist, who owed his life to the Mennonites who had rescued him from near certain death as a baby, and now was my musical brother in Christ.

One effect of a griot’s love of his or her native scene is to awaken a similar affection in a hearer for his or her own heritage. I’ll close as I began this nostalgic travel account by evoking an experience of linking a griot in a foreign scene with the domesticity of my own memory. It came in the Galilee at Capernaum, thronged by pilgrims from everywhere on the Globe, especially, it seemed, India. My heart had already been warmed in the tourist center, by the sight of a swallow’s nest attached to a beam exactly as in our barn at home.

Swallow at Capernaum

Swallow at Capernaum

Thinking of Psalm 84–“how amiable”–I was unexpectedly further touched by the sight and sounds of a group of Indians being led by a white-robed priest in a Catholic mass. I had felt more surprise than connection with these foreign Christians until they broke out in singing “All to thee my blessed Savior, I surrender all.” I had never particularly enjoyed this somewhat whiny song back at the little Finland mission of my baptism, where the name of Capernaum had been familiar. Here the tempo was even more languid, and there was no four-part harmony to enrich the refrain. Yet here was an emotional cross-cultural link. Traveling from opposite directions, we had come to the ground of our faith together. It felt like family. They were singing our song!


About the Author

John L. Ruth

John L. Ruth, of Harleysville, Pennsylvania, is well known in Swiss Mennonite circles as a pastor, raconteur, historian, tour leader, film maker, professor and literary critic. His major historical writings are of the Lancaster County and Franconia Mennonite settlements, in The Earth Is the Lord’s (2001) and Maintaining the Right Fellowship (1984), respectively. His PBS documentary films, with photographer Burton Buller, are The Amish (1976) and The Hutterites (1980). In 1969 he engaged Jan Gleysteen to guide his family on a 3-week Anabaptist History tour in Europe; in 1973 he was a historical commentator on a similar tour, and since then has almost yearly continued that work on approximately 60 overseas heritage tours for Tourmagination. In Mennonite literary circles he is best known for his ground-breaking and controversial Mennonite Identity and Literary Art (1978). Ordained a Mennonite minister at the age of 20, John has served the Conshohocken, King of Prussia and Salford congregations. He graduated from Eastern University in 1956 and earned a PhD in English from Harvard University in 1968, writing his dissertation on early American hymnody. From 1962-76 he taught English at Eastern College (now University); in 1968-69 he was visiting professor of English at the University of Hamburg, Germany.