March 16th, 2008
A few years ago, Elvera Voth, a musician that grew up a few miles from here was back in the area. Her specialty is vocal music, and one evening, she led a hymn sing at our church.
During the event, she talked about how much music can touch the heart. Elvera remembered many years ago that a woman in the church was leaving for a service trip to India. She would be gone for 7 years straight. None of her family or friends would be able to see her during that entire time.
The day she was to depart, friends, family, and church members went with her to the Santa Fe station in Newton, KS. While waiting for her train, at some point, the group started singing. Elvera remembered that they sang So nimm denn meine Hände (Take thou my hand, O Father) and Ich bete an die Macht der Liebe (O Power of Love).
Elvera remembered they sang in the station, and the high, wood ceilings made it sound like the music filled the whole building. I can’t think of a better goodbye than that.
Elvera remembered so many details about the event, but two things she didn’t remember were who was leaving and what year this happened. So I remembered this story for awhile, but didn’t really follow up on it.
Then last December, our neighbor Hildred called. Hildred and her sister live on their old family farm about a mile from us. They’re some of the older members of our church, and I believe both of them have lived on that farm their entire lives. Hildred heard that I am gathering photos for a book about the centennial of our church, and she offered to bring some of them over. Knowing that it was cold and dark outside, the roads were snowy, and that Hildred drives a car at least 40 years old (because “Daddy said this is a good car”), I offered to drive to their place. “Oh no,” she said, “it’s no trouble. I like to get out. Besides, I haven’t seen your house since it’s been remodeled!” So she came over.
Hildred had stacks of amazing old photos from the church and the community. And she had a stack of photos and letters from India, where her aunt Augusta Schmidt was a nurse for 14 years. She was very proud of her aunt’s service to the needy there. I started to put things together in my head and asked her if she remembered singing at the train station when Augusta left for India. “Oh sure,” said Hildred, as if everyone knew about that.
So that’s how it happened that the “historical moment” on Feb. 10 was about Augusta Schmidt. Each month during church, leading up to our centennial in October, we have a brief time where we highlight some interesting story from the church’s past. I happened to mention this one at a historical committee meeting.
So, on that Sunday in February, someone got up and told everyone about Augusta’s life. She was born in 1894 and graduated from college with a nursing degree in 1927. She heard about India at a conference, and quickly felt that God wanted her to serve there. She left for India in the fall of 1927, and would serve two 7-year terms there.
She wrote that India was a beautiful land, contrary to things she had heard. The city where she worked (I believe it was Bombay, but I’m not positive) had hallmarks of a wealthy city, such as educational institutions, hotels, etc. However, it saddened her greatly to learn that 80% of the people in the city were homeless and slept on the street. No doubt this played a role in her dedication to service there.
After we learned about Augusta, the choir sang So nimm denn meine Hände — one of the songs that Augusta heard at the train station back in 1927. Imagine you were there, 81 years ago, seeing a friend off on a trip across continents, not to see her again for 7 years. Then the people there start singing a cappella…
|So nimm denn meine Hände
und führe mich
Bis an mein selig Ende
Ich kann allein nicht gehen,
nicht einen Schritt;
Wo du wirst gehn und stehen,
da nimm micht mit.
|Take thou my hand, O Father,
and lead thou me,
until my journey endeth
Alone I will not wander
one single day.
Be thou my true companion
and with me stay.
You probably weren’t there that day in 1927, or even the day in February when the choir sang the song. I wasn’t either because I had the flu that day. But I borrowed the cassette recording of that day’s service, recorded using the best we have right now — the wrong type of microphone pointed the wrong way, onto a cassette tape that has certainly been reused way more times than anybody knows.
The choir sang the first verse in German, verse 2 in English, and the whole church joined in on verse 3. I’m told there weren’t many dry eyes in the church after that. After all, how could you keep a straight face singing “Take, then, my hand, O Father, and lead thou me, until my journey endeth eternally” right after the narrator read about Augusta’s retirement and death, saying, “there, I was surrounded by friends, but most of all, by the sovereign love of God who had been with me my entire life.”
Remember Elvera Voth, from whom I first learned this story? In 1961, she moved to Alaska. Elvera taught at several universities; founded the Anchorage Opera; directed the Alaska Festival of Music, Anchorage Boys Choir, and Alaska Chamber Singers; and there is Elvera Voth Hall at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts.
But her best work, I think, happened after she retired and moved back to Kansas in 1995. In 1998, Elvera founded the East Hill Singers, a choir composed mainly of minimum-security prison inmates, plus volunteers from the community. Elvera has inspired so many people, taught them that they have value, that they can succeed and make themselves better. One of the said:
Can you imagine what a standing ovation feels like after being told all your life that you are worthless?
And another inmate commented:
It made me feel like maybe I’m not just being punished. I mean, I am being punished for what I did. But being in this program made me think that I can also come out… well, better … a better person.
It all makes me think. What an amazing thing these two women with love in their hearts have done to make this planet a better place. Is it even possible to do that by using weapons that kill and power to frighten?
As Elvera puts it, “many of the men in prison will be back in the community soon. I’d rather have them as a neighbor with hope in their hearts than with hate in their eyes.”