Through their music
August-2019

“It’s like a scene from a movie… indigenous people sitting upright in pews as missionaries lead the congregation to sing Guide me O thou Great Jehovah while they conduct and play the organ. Locals sit there trying to imitate, making little sense of the foreign language or the strange music. What’s produced sounds like a nonsensical cacophony.

“Actually this is a scene from a movie, The African Queen, set in 1914,” says Maria Custodio. “But the scene represents all too well how music was often used by missionaries in the past.

“Now a scene from the present, where a group of believers from the Bla’an tribe are assembled in the southern Philippines. They talk about all the different types of music, dance, drama, visual arts and verbal arts that they have in their culture. They think about which artistic forms would be appropriate and effective for teaching people about God. Then they start creating the old ladies start dancing a dance-drama to depict the story of Jonah, the youth start singing in their language a song that teaches about God, and a pastor starts chanting about Jesus in traditional Bla’an style. They comment on how they finally feel that they can be fully Bla’an and yet follow Jesus with all of their lives.”

Maria is an ethnomusicologist. She’s an Australian working with SIM in the Philippines among tribal people, with her husband and small daughter. She also leads SIM International Arts, as the mission tries to find more opportunities for creative people to serve in places where Jesus is not known.

Maria says arts missionaries can act as facilitators at events like the creative session with the Bla’an believers, “to encourage them to create artistic works for evangelism, worship and discipleship. The focus is not necessarily on artistic forms that make sense to the missionaries, but on forms that make sense to the locals that they are trying to reach out to.” Maria has been learning to play their instrument, the kulintang.

“This is just one of the many things that a creative person can do on the mission field.

“As missionaries aim to communicate the gospel, we frequently default to the methods of communication that we are used to, instead of utilising methods of communication that the locals we are trying to reach employ. For many indigenous communities important concepts are passed on through their local art forms. Artistic expressions are heavily integrated into everyday life in many indigenous cultures, making art forms a great way of spreading Biblical messages throughout the community. They also tend to be less threatening mediums of communication, and many who are not open to talking directly about God are often willing to listen to a song, watch a drama or look at a piece of visual art. Also, artistic expressions engage with the mind and the emotions, helping people to process concepts at a deeper level.

“In our workshops participants think through which of their local art forms might be appropriate to use in worship and to spread the gospel (using the Bible as their authority). Although our aim is to spread God’s word, an unexpected outcome has been seeing people working through how their Christian identity intersects with their ethnic identity.

“We are working in a country where certain ethnic groups have been labelled ‘Christian’, others ‘Muslim’ and others ‘Animistic.’ How can one follow Jesus if not from a ‘Christian’ people group? As our participants’ art forms are deeply connected to their ethnic identities, it is interesting to see them come to grips with what it means to follow Jesus within their people group and cultural setting. Participants have learnt that they can be themselves, in the community that God has placed them in, and still follow Jesus.”

Maria’s background in music strongly points to the ministry she has ended up in. Back in Australia she taught clarinet and saxophone and performed in world music bands. She also led the music team at an Iranian church there. Do you have a background in music? Or drama or dance? SIM can use whatever skills or occupation you have, somewhere in the world. And there are always mission schools looking out for music and other arts teachers to join their staff. Sometimes that’s a great way to test the water.

Is this you? Are you a musician, keen to explore the rhythms and instruments of other communities, and have a heart for sharing Jesus?  Get in touch — email us on nz.letstalk@sim.org. See the SIM Creative Arts page on Facebook — or contact Maria on intl.arts@sim.org.

— Maria Custodio & Zoë Cromwell