Thursday, December 14, 2006

It ain't over 'til the blog is done

I met a couple of interesting people on the long trip back to Nashville from Cape Town. One was Byron, the very well-mannered 9th-grader who sat next to me from J'burg to D.C. He was traveling by himself (brave kid!) on his way to Ohio to visit an aunt & uncle he hadn't seen in years. Even though his dad is an engineer with an aviation company, Byron was taking his first flight, so I made sure to point out the little tricks I'd learned about using the video screen (turned out I never had to use my trick of detaching the screen from the seat in front of me to get a decent angle...picked that up from Bobby S. on a previous S.A. trip).

At the airport in D.C. I celebrated touching down on U.S. soil by purchasing a breakfast calzone (I suppose that's what you'd call it) and a Mtn. Dew. I had time to pick up a couple more souvenirs (incl. a key chain replica of Air Force One that made airplane sounds when you punch its nose--neato). Then I found I had even more time than I had thought, since when I got to the gate they told us the plane was late getting there and so we'd be late an hour or more. So my 29+ hour trip would be a tad longer. Joy. United/Mesa did not win big points with me on this trip, to say the least. But it did give me a chance to get acquainted with Hugh Cumming, a bluegrass enthusiast from J'burg who has developed his hobby of trading vintage instruments into a business. He was carrying a banjo protected by a case swathed in bubble wrap, to deliver it to one of Ricky Skaggs' band members. Nice guy. Friend of George Gruhn, owner of world-renowned Gruhn Guitars on Broadway in Nashville. I offered to share my ride if there was room, and he said maybe we could split a cab.

Once we finally got on the plane in D.C., there was a feeling that the staff was rushing to make up time (I tried to avoid thinking about the fact that they were more likely to miss something crucial in this state). The stewardess had shut the door and was beginning her spiel, when there a knock on the door. She opened the door and it a female crew member who asked "Are you arriving or departing?" The stewardess refrained from calling the woman what everyone in earshot must have been thinking of her, and answered her, then shut the door, picked up the microphone and after a "sorry about that" continued her instructions. In the crew member's defense we were so far behind some of us were probably starting to wonder if we were coming or going, too. As I said, United/Mesa has won no points with me on this trip. Having to stand out on the tarmac in Nashville for even a few minutes while they pulled my guitar and the other fragile bags out of the hold was a cold welcome home, given the bracing weather that day.

Since I didn't have the number of the guy I had e-mailed to take him up on his offer to pick me up at the airport, (my bad) and didn't see him at the gate or in baggage claim, Hugh and I decided to share the cab. Meanwhile Ricky Skaggs came walking by and I pointed him out to Hugh. He couldn't resist going over to say hello, especially since he was carrying the banjo for Skaggs' band member. Skaggs was polite, and Hugh was pretty excited. It reinforced my unofficial motto for Nashville: "Ya just never know...."

Before long, after what I think may actually have been my first cab ride...can't remember having been in one before...I was thankfully home and unpacked. I called my would-be ride and he was at the airport waiting for me, having left and come back. I told him he still got spiritual credit for trying.

After a few days of getting sleepy very early in the evening and being dismayed at the early darkness (compared to the summer sunshine of S. Africa!), I'm getting adjusted and my answers to "how was your trip?" are getting less wordy. Now that I'm caught up on this blog I can refer everyone to it!

"And now you know...the REST of the story." For now.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Wednesday: I'm so glad we had this time...together...

After taking a little longer to pack than most normal people (at least it's easier packing for the return trip, since there are fewer choices of what to take), I was on my way back to Capricorn, with my reliable guide and driver, Susie. We picked up local resident and volunteer Maggie at the Muizenberg shelter on the way to the HIV/AIDS support group meeting. This meeting would be the first time I had actually spent in someone's home in a township, so I felt some nervousness mixed with curiosity. I didn't really have a biblical "lesson" in mind to offer; I had been conditioned by now to be OK with winging it (in the Spirit, presumably).

The house we went to was very comfortable though small; the atmosphere reminded me of my late grandmother's house. After a very pleasant visit during which I croaked out a few songs (solo and singalong) with my cough-afflicted voice, and after sharing a light snack, Susie and Maggie and I excused ourselves and headed for the airport.

I was comfortably early, and had time to check in without being rushed. Thanks to a good travel plan, and no delayed flights until the final leg from D.C. to Nashville (courtesy United/Mesa), I didn't have to worry about being late for the rest of the trip.

Tuesday, pt. 2: Lunch with a Star

When I got back to the Muizenberg center, I was told that my friend Verity had come by and would meet me at a cafe around the corner (back on my late schedule). I found her at a little table in the sun; it looked like a scene from a foreign movie, only better because I could walk right into it and exchange a friendly hug with the star! After a cup of tea there we walked to a cafe not far away and I indulged myself with the kind of meal I can't easily afford on U.S. dollars in the States; the exchange rate was definitely on my side. We had been in touch via e-mail since the 5 month period she had spent in Nashville last year, which is when we met, but it's always better in person, so we spent the meal catching up on each other's news and sharing all manner of deep thoughts. It was a nourishing time for me (and not just because of the steak).

I'm fascinated by the fact that, despite very different backgrounds (geographic and otherwise), philosophies, and so forth, Verity and I can "connect" so easily (still talking "mere" friendship, mind you), and yet there are people with whom I have much more in common here at home that might as well be total strangers when it comes to trying to have a conversation.

Of course to be brutally honest, in our case part of it may be that we are so clearly separated by the aforementioned factors that there is no question of it being anything more than a long-distance friendship, so we are "safe" to share on a deeper level than we would be otherwise (speaking for myself, anyway). But this is not a bad thing, as far as I'm concerned...I doubt it will surprise anyone that I find it hard to see a down side to spending time with a beautiful single woman! As long as we're both clear on our intentions (we are), I suppose it never hurts to stay in practice.

A similar principle applies to the short-term mission experiences the church offers; being in an "alien" place for a short time with a specific purpose to share the Gospel in some way calls out instincts and impulses in ourselves that would probably remain dormant if we never left home. This doesn't mean we aren't our "real" selves on the mission field; we're allowing new facets of ourselves to come to the surface, and hopefully the positive aspects will stay active after we return home, and we'll be better servants as a result. This is the transforming nature of missions.

Anyway, after lunch Verity allowed me to "put her to work" as a model, so I could capture a shot of her next to her cool little car. As someone pointed out to me, there are hardly any SUV's in S. Africa so it's slightly less dangerous to tool around in these tiny vehicles...but no more comfortable for us tall folks, I would assume. Then it was goodbye until one of us might cross the ocean again for another visit.

I took the opportunity to browse the craft items for sale at the shelter, and interrupted something important that receptionist Siske and Avril were working on to take a picture of the two. They kindly obliged, though Avril's expression seems more one of tolerance than thrill, understandably!

I got back to the Team House well before the team and thoroughly enjoyed the peace and quiet and solitude. I had had enough sun and wind for one day, so I finished my steak over a book in the dining room, then took a nap and did some e-mail. I had taken the approach of "pacing myself" in an effort to keep my health from getting too much worse (though the inevitable cough was coming on), especially since Matt Allison had set it up for me to do a half hour or so at an open mic downtown. Unfortunately after getting there we found it had been cancelled, so Matt gave me and Justin, the team member who had come along, a driving tour of downtown. Good conversation, and since I could barely sing at that point I was more relieved than disappointed.

Tuesday, pt. 1: Discovering New Talent

On Tuesday it was back to Capricorn for me, to help with the Children's Club there; Living Hope staff and volunteers lead this 2-3 hour per day, 2 (or 3?) day per week program that generally includes games, songs, sandwiches and teaching time. The teaching for these clubs incorporates Bible instruction and AIDS prevention the case of these children, it's hardly ever too early to start either one. Innocence, at least as we think of it here in the U.S., is one of the first casualties of the conditions in which these kids live, not only due to lack of moral guidance in some cases (but not all), but also to the lack of privacy, as each child may share a one- or two-room shack with his/her parent(s), older siblings, cousins, etc.

Susie and I got to the orange container before anyone else (a first for me this week!), and some children started to gather at the car. Eventually I pulled out my guitar and sat down on the case behind the car where the shade was, and played a few Christmas songs. One or two sang along softly (or at least moved their lips).

After Sherna and her crew arrived, the kids began gathering and before long were involved in some games and songs (some of the latter led by me, some by their usual experts--and I say that with no irony intended). I consulted with Clinton on a plan for the day: songs, games, snacks. During the game time (in the same basin where the carnival had been), someone introduced me to Basil, a 12-yr.-old who had a song--his very first, I understand--written neatly in a notebook, divided into verses and chorus. I read it and complimented him on the lyrics. It didn't occur to me to ask him to sing it to me, so someone else brought him back to me and encouraged him to do just that. I was even more impressed and we sat down in a quiet spot with a friend or two of his with us, and I played a song of mine and showed him my own lyric notebook (seldom without it!). I asked him to let me shoot him on video singing his song, and he agreed. So maybe one of these days I'll be able to say I knew this successful songwriter way back when!

The original suggestion had been for me to lead some sort of songwriting workshop with the kids, but honestly I had never come up with anything for that. I hadn't felt too confident that I had anything of substance to offer the adults on Saturday, and that had gone OK...but kids can be a tougher "audience." I felt like Basil was enough to fulfill that part of my "mission" that day. Clinton, one of the local leaders who led much of the program, seemed a little stressed that I would not be taking the program off his hands as much as he had thought, but I encouraged him to let Basil share his song with the group and see what they might get from that. The point is to allow leaders to develop from among the people, after all, and sometimes the best way to do that is to get out of the way.

So, after I had helped as much I could to get the sandwiches and drinks served, it was up to Sherna to get me back to Living Hope in Muizenberg so I could make my lunch appointment with my friend Verity, whom I had finally got in touch with the evening before. I hated to be even more trouble to my hosts but I didn't want to miss lunch with a friend, either. We had a very good conversation on the way, and as she told me about her spiritual journey I could see some of the passion that drives her in offering love and time to the children in Capricorn. I told her to look me up when she comes to Nashville for Ashley's wedding in April; I'll be interested to see what she thinks of our town.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Monday: Keeping Up with the Homeless

Monday (Dec. 4) was a day of making up for all that rest the team had had the day before.

My pal Susie picked me up at 8 a.m. to get me to the homeless shelter in Muizenberg so I could lead the devotional for the "clients" and staff. They were already gathered when I arrived, so I found a place in the circle and got ready to dive in. I shared some thoughts on Jeremiah 29, not only the passage everyone likes to quote for comfort (29:11-13, "For I know the plans I have for you...plans to prosper you, not to harm you...") but also the context in previous verses where the Israelites are instructed through the prophet to prepare to be in their exiled (or "homeless") state for quite awhile....not the word they were probably looking for. The point was God is in control even when we are not happy with our circumstances. I finished with my song on that topic, "God Never Says Oops."

During the tea time that followed a few Christmas songs, one of the guys told me he had taken my words to heart. We had a good discussion.

I took some time to step out and take a short walk down the street, to check on the possibility of renting a phone (no dice) and pick up a snack and some vitamin C for my ongoing sinus/cough condition. Forgot they charge 15 cents (100ths of a rand) for sacks, so when I asked for one after paying for my purchase, I sensed the cashier was hiding a bit of irritation at having to ring it up separately. Live and learn!

By the time I returned the team had arrived and the Christmas luncheon was getting underway. Everyone crowded into seats behind tables and the team served up the meal. I pitched in as I found room to stand, passing plates brigade-style. I didn't see a place to stand to serenade the crowd, but Avril asked me to do a few songs for/with them. After several presentations and short speeches of appreciation by various staff, I launched into some Christmas songs on guitar. Before long it was a matter of my keeping up with the enthusiastic singers in the crowd, of which there were many. Then I gave up pretending I was leading the songs and got my camera to try to get some visuals of the celebration, not only of the season, but of life itself, it seemed to me.

After the dinner was over and the room had been cleared (inviting attendees to accept a gift on their way out), the team hurriedly cleaned up and jumped into combies to head for the next party, the carnival at Capricorn. Most had not had a chance to eat lunch, so in the inevitable delays getting started some grabbed a soda as they could from a nearby store.

The area Living Hope refers to as simply Capricorn is a settlement or township with sparse infrastructure (water, power, etc.) and too many hastily-built homes (many of them shacks) crowded into the given area. It lies in utter contrast to the neat & clean developed community that is alongside it, off the same traffic circle. Living Hope has a bright orange shipping container as a semi-permanent base of operations near the entrance to the impoverished community. Containers are often used as ad hoc buildings in these areas.

The local volunteers and staff had already set up the huge inflatable slide when we arrived, and the jumping castle was being inflated. The sunken "field" they were in was basically the overflow basin for both communities; hence the lush covering of grass at the bottom. That and the occasional shard of broken glass in it made it less than the ideal place to tromp around in; I was glad I wasn't barefoot like most of the kids...and especially glad for dry weather.

All this was irrelevant to our 300-400 attendees, though. They stood patiently (considering) in line to climb the back of the slide for the thrilling ride down, and to jump in the castle. And for everything else being offered. Keeping kids in line was not just a metaphor today! Some received pinwheels on sticks, some played with homemade Play-Doh, and I joined a few in squeezing out the last few bubbles from a soapy concoction in a basin.

While taking a much-needed break from the searing sun (never have been a hat person), I was entertained by Ed Newman's tale of dealing with an area bank after a malfunction at the ATM. He's not one to suffer fools gladly, but few enjoy telling the story afterward more than Ed. After a couple hours or so of crowd control, taking pictures, and escorting a couple of team members to the nearby shopping center for bathroom visits (and for myself, a sample of biltong; like soft beef jerky), it was time to head home.

After dinner I had a visit from a South African songwriter named Donovan, whom I had met on my previous visit at the songwriting seminar I taught for the MusicMakers meeting. We had been corresponding via e-mail about a possible co-write, but I never could come up with anything to offer the song he had in mind. I don't have much experience in co-writing so far, though I'm willing to try. We shared some songs and got better acquainted during his short visit.

Monday, December 11, 2006

(anything but) Another Pleasant Valley Sunday

Well, this blog has become more of a memoir, but I'll continue the saga.

In some ways Sunday (Dec. 3) was a fairly typical for me: church, lunch with friends and spending money (only I usually include a nap in there too). But of course the difference is in the details.

Tagged along with the Extreme Response team to attend King of Kings church, a familiar spot by now. I sat with fellow BBC'er Ashley L. and a couple of the kids she is seldom seen without these days. Jeromy D. and Brian Barefoot (also of FFH) were working their new (temporary) roles as worship band members at K.O.K. In his sermon, Pastor John Thomas spoke about the dynamic power of God...and the stormy weather outside provided the sound effects as illustration. I asked him how he arranged for this; he didn't share.

After a cup of hot tea in the lobby, we were off to Masiphumelele Baptist Church. There were only a handful at the service when we got there, and unfortunately the choir was not "in formation" but the congregational singing was still strong and welcome to my ears. Pastor Phillip took the opportunity to show our group more opportunities to help (financially or otherwise) and while services continued, took our group on a quick "tour" of the currently closed clinic facilities in the back of the church building, and of the recently-paved area outside. The wind was chilly and no one seemed to linger out there for long.

After another 20 minutes or so, and long before the service was likely to be over (they can last awhile), we departed for the home of John and Avril Thomas. We were in the comfortable tour bus the team was using part of the time; definitely a nice change from being packed into the combies (a VW van and a Range Rover).

After a nice lunch (of very familiar dishes, whether for our sake I'm not sure, but very welcome), Pastor Thomas shared the story of Living Hope and an update on new developments. I've heard the history more than once but it seems I always hear something new; it's quite a story--definitely the makings of a great book. Avril shared that she is now coordinating the "prevention" efforts of Living Hope; this would include the children's clubs, adult support groups, etc. where they teach how to avoid contracting and spreading HIV/AIDS. I'm sure like most people she would just as soon have stayed in the role she was in, managing the Muizenberg shelter, but the nature of the ministry the Thomases have continued to pursue doesn't allow for much comfort.

At this point I definitely could have used a nap, but we were off to the bus to head for the waterfront. The weather outruled a trip to Table Mtn. so it was time to shop. I found a few things at the African Craft Market (like an indoor flea market in TN) and the music shop.

Eventually most of the group got back together for dinner and then everyone met up to board the bus back to the Team House, to compare bargains and prep for the next day.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Saturday: the workshop and concert

OK, enough with the dramatic pause since last post, here’s how the workshop and concert went.

It was GREAT!!! And most of you know I’m not one to be overenthusiastic in my assessment of things I’m involved in. It was just great.

As per usual this week, I was working on what they call here “African time” (not due to my own tardiness, this time) and got to the radio station at about 9:45. There were about 20 people already seated in the auditorium, having checked in at a table in the back operated by the capable team of Carmen and Tamsa. Matt Allison had the sound system ready to go, and ended up running it all day. I had a quick conference with Ricky, the local person who was my “partner-in-charge” of the event (see his poster in a previous post), and we sketched out what the plan was for the moment and for the day. I gave him the registration/survey forms to be filled out by attendees. Along with the usual basic info, we asked them what they were into musically, what they wanted to get out of the workshop, etc. And at the bottom we asked them to find 3 people who had at least one same answer and write down their names and where they were from, just to get them talking to each other (never a bad time to network!).

Eventually we kicked off with a welcome from Imgard, the station manager, and worship music led by the very capable Darryl. My part involved leading a discussion of the elements of a song (lyrics, melody, meaning, emotion, etc.), and how to approach starting on one (title, first line, etc.). We did some little exercises or games to limber up our writing muscles, such as finishing the phrase “Roses are red, violets are blue” and making randomly-paired words to see what kind of metaphors might happen (thanks Pat Pattison!). The results were interesting to me as much as anyone, since I’d never actually done this stuff before. They seemed to enjoy it.

As we broke for lunch, Ricky “assigned” everyone the task of observing their surroundings and coming up with ideas for the song they’d be writing later. Had a tasty pepper steak meat pie and a Mountain Dew (not exactly the same taste, but close enough) in the park next to the station, with Ricky and Darryl. I was relieved my part was done and that it had gone better than I expected, and now I could simply enjoy the day.

After lunch, Ricky led a session that would probably never happen in Nashville: imagine 60 people in a room writing a song together. At the same time. With no waivers, paperwork, etc. to avoid copyright disputes in case the song ever became a hit. It was glorious. And a little dangerous, if not a tad irresponsible, but the benefits of the freedom and the sense of cooperation seemed worth it. This was Ricky’s idea, and frankly I was skeptical, but it just goes to show how much you can achieve when you don’t realize something can’t be done.

With musical help from Matt on guitar, Ricky got the group started with agreeing on a title, and a musical feel, then generated lines. Most of the attendees are involved in leading music in their churches, etc. and the level of talent was impressive, especially the vocals. Within an hour, they had the place swinging and swaying and shouting with approval at the various contributions from the floor, including some killer vocals. I got most of it on video, but hopefully they’ll get together and do a recording of the full song. But regardless, the experience was the thing, and it was good.

Jeromy Deibler of FFH took the next hour to share his experience, including a song or two. He greeted his cousin, a young woman he had met on his previous trip with Brentwood BC in March. Now he and his family, and his bro.-in-law and his wife, are all on a sort of sabbatical here for several months, working with the praise team at King of Kings BC (led by Living Hope founder John Thomas). His presentation was well-received.

Next Matt took the unenviable position of closing the day. A few of the attendees had had to leave before his session, and the rest were getting a little tired from the day (or was that just me?), but his info on the business aspects of music, and his own take on songwriting, were a vital part of the picture, and he fielded several questions before we wrapped up. I wish I could remember all the accolades and honors he’s received so far, but you can check his website for the full story:

Matt and Jeromy & I left Ricky in charge of the house and shared an enjoyable cafĂ© dinner up the road. When we returned, we set up for a round on stage, but as it became apparent that the concert would not be drawing more than a handful, someone suggested we put the chairs in a circle to include performers and audience. This was the perfect solution, especially since we had offered a few folks the chance to do one of their own songs in a limited open mic. The group grew to about 25, and it was a great evening of sharing songs of all sorts of styles, as well as an impromptu guitar lesson as Jeromy got Darryl to show him one of the chords he’d used. Darryl is one of the many people that day that proved that the instruction was going both directions that day, between Nashville and Cape Town. It was really more a matter of us proving why they don’t really need us, but we’re glad to be here anyway!

So, in case I didn’t mention it, the day was a great success, not only numerically, but also in achieving what we were after in concentrating the enthusiasm that existed already and giving it a nudge. It was great to see the faces and hear the feedback from the attendees. One little girl named Tabitha, 11 yrs. old, showed me the lyrics to her latest song (complete with verse and chorus divisions indicated). If you ever doubt the value and the future of music, come to S. Africa.

Here's a video of (most of) the song they came up with:

Monday, December 04, 2006

Friday: Massive party in Masi

On Friday, I began the day at the homeless shelter/office in Muizenberg. Since I got there too late for me to lead a devotional for the handful of homeless folks gathered there, I agreed to lead it on Monday.

Took part of the morning just to get in touch with my surroundings on my own. I walked up the street, bought a snack at the grocery store (called Checkers), and generally took in the sights of Main Street, just off the beach.

After lunch Susie drove me to meet up with the Extreme Response team in the township of Masiphumelele. They had things rolling by the time I got there (seeing a pattern here?). The leader, Tom, had given us the schedule the night before, but I guess it didn’t register in my tired mind that it was different from the itinerary I had been looking at. Anyway, this was a children’s carnival, and it took place in the fenced-in elementary schoolyard. Approximately 700 kids were enjoying the activities, which included a huge inflatable slide, an inflatable jumping castle (the kids did the jumping, not the castle), facepainting, a puppet show (translated by their Children’s Club teacher Natalie via a bullhorn—magic!), and an opportunity to get a Polaroid picture made. Polaroids were the most economical way to allow them to take a picture with them. Apparently they took the song “Hey Ya” literally, because they were shaking their Polaroids (sounds like a euphemism) and sometimes ruining them. But overall they seemed ecstatic. The team and local volunteers were doing well to maintain order and keep a fun and loving atmosphere, if not a clean and tidy one. It was definitely trial by fire for much of the team, many of whom never having even been to S. Africa before.

I saw several familiar faces from the Masi Children’s Clubs from the past 2 years. My buddy Darren came by and showed me the guitar he acquired in Sept. Darren was such a big help in the clubs, and is a spiritual big brother to the kids around him. He is in need of lessons, so I’m praying God will provide someone for that, as well as to give him the mentoring that will help him continue on the path toward being a true spiritual leader in his community.

As we wrapped up, the inevitable wait for the actual departure allowed me a few minutes to sit down and play a few songs for a handful of kids just outside the gate. Carnegie Hall, Schermerhorn…you can have ‘em.

I will admit that in various degrees I was fretting (no pun intended) all this time about my lack of a phone (lesson: rent a phone at the airport on arrival), my own car, and especially the foreboding feeling of unpreparedness regarding my part of the songwriting seminar coming up the next day...the fact that all of these were based on my own decisions and/or lack of effort did not help. So I was looking forward with as much dread as anticipation, but at the same time I knew it would be better than I expected, and different. I was right on both counts.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Thursday: Missions is no picnic...except today

Continuing to catch up:

My first assignment was to meet with 3 different HIV/AIDS support groups offered by Living Hope. I found out on the way (running late due to my ride locking her keys in the car) that the 3 successive meetings had been combined into one, and it was a braai (barbecue) at a park on the shore of a small lake near the ocean in Muizenberg. They were honoring a gentle-voiced young man from the Democratic Republic of the Congo named Jean Paul. He had been working with the groups closely as an internship and has completed his studies and moved to an admin position with Living Hope coordinating the groups.

Instead of a steel/wood structure near each braai, there was a small circle of trees for shade. Very African! When I arrived there were about 25 people lounging about in knots. One older man was playing accordion and leading a group in singing their favorite songs in various accents. Most of the songs pre-dated me by a decade or two. I sat down to listen. They did "The Tennessee Waltz" even before finding out I was a Tennessean; fun to hear that in such a remote place and context. Some of the group participated in some games provided by a local young woman named Kaarin who came by on her off-time to volunteer.

Avril Thomas of Living Hope (my supervisor for this venture) and Jean Paul addressed the group and I sang about 3 songs, and we ate. I played a few more afterward, and we were done for the day. Good times.

Catching up on lost blogs: the trip over

Apologies to anyone who's been checking this blog (as I requested) only to find next to nothing on the trip until now. The pc's at the Team House are down and computer time has been hard to find; we're sharing laptops belonging to the house manager and the Extreme Response team guide, Ed Newman. After a long day it's hard to stay up long enough (or get up early enough) to blog, plus I'm not a big laptop fan (still learning to keep my hands from drifting across the mousepad area--some bizarre things happen when you do that). Pics will have to come later for similar reasons.

So ANYWAY, to summarize, things are going well. The songwriting seminar on Sat. was packed with enthusiastic attendees, and it seemed to be very helpful for them, generally speaking. The group songwriting session led by my local friend Ricky was pretty wild; it's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't realize what can't be done. More on that later.

I started blogging the old-fashioned way on the trip over. I wrote the following on the plane (and have edited it a little).

Wed. Nov. 29, 2:05 S.A. time

The lights have been dimmed and I'm digesting my "beef bourguignon" and the film "A Prairie Home Companion" that accompanied it. Having no one in the seat in front of me saved me from the need to detach the screen from the seat back to see it (a trick I learned from a fellow traveler last year).

Overall it's been an enjoyable day of travel (I have to use the term loosely since it's mostly consisted of sitting still). No major glitches--this category would include sleeping through my alarm (or forgetting to set it or setting it to p.m., etc.)...forgetting something important like passport, tickets or underwear...ride not showing up (Cindy Austin? Not likely).

I did experience a minor glitch in that I was a bit earlier than necessary for my 1st flight (lost sleep time--no biggie) and that flight was delayed from 8:50 to 9:30. I took a nap on the floor in protest. I was concerned that my last minute decision not to take a jacket on the trip would leave me cold on the long flight from D.C. to Joburg, but so far so good.

On the purely positive side I had a pleasant lunch at Dulles (burger & coke--not exactly going cold turkey on the caffeine), where my attention was like a windshield wiper, intermittently switching back & forth between Wild At Heart by John Eldredge (so THIS is what the fuss has been about) and people-watching.

I made use of the airport chapel (complete with a few rows of padded chairs & pulpit for the Christians & a side area with rugs for the Muslims) to practice a few tunes. For the sake of the two or three people who drifted in while I was there, to do a Hail Mary (or whatever) or just check it out, I refrained from actually singing. One person was there when I left, quietly praying (I assume) in the front row--clearly not a Baptist.

Met a few of the Extreme Response team members at the gate/lounge area before leaving for S.A. Nice folks.

After going through the gate I thought we'd be boarding the plane directly, but it turned out to be a bus. I wondered how many stops it would be making on the way to Joburg. I refrained from making a lame joke out loud along this line. The bus was one that has a body that lowers to access the gate and raises to dock with the plane; kind of like a low-rider on steroids, without the decoration or bass-thumping sound system.

Avoided the fate of sitting next to a man at least 3x my size (in cross-section) and instead have an attractive young woman next to me named Deanna. She's traveling from her home in Florida to visit her (cruise ship captain?) boyfriend in Pretoria. I was glad she made the gesture of introducing herself; on a flight this long it would seem awkward to eat, sleep and veg out next to someone without at least knowing a name.

Friday, December 01, 2006

I'm here...more to come

Computer access has not been as available as I had counted on, but I wanted to let you know I made it in one piece and the same for my luggage. Things are going well so far...tune in again for more.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Ready to fly...

...or at least I will be after an inadequate amount of sleep and a shower. Got my bags packed (one, really; the guitar is a pretty simple deal), and it's not even midnight. Could be a record. Not one to brag about, really, since I have to leave the apt. at 6:45, but still a marked improvement over the past. I checked the weather in Cape Town and traded some long-sleeves for T-shirts. Looks like a hot week ahead (I'm glad I have Fahrenheit numbers to look at, otherwise I'd be getting out the calculator).

I checked the TSA list of allowed items; very interesting reading.

I found $40 I had tucked away at some point during last year's trip; that's always a treat.

Now to treat myself to a taped episode of "Studio 60" (I'm up anyway). I'm choosing to be patient with the weak spots, such as the often klunky portrayal of the Christian character on the cast-within-the-cast; I can't help feeling they did their research on Christians by watching TV, but I'd like to know more on that point. A nice effort nonetheless. It is a fact that Victoria Jackson was not shy about professing her beliefs while she was on SNL, though she didn't get the chance to do it during the show, for obvious reasons. In an interview I read with her in the Wittenburg Door (a Christian satire mag--yes, they know it's misspelled--I wasn't there to help), she came off pretty sharp, especially given her bubblehead image.

Also, as Mad TV pointed out last week in a wicked satire, "Studio 60" does have a hard time avoiding an exaggerated sense of self-importance, given that it's not about life-or-death situations like on "ER" or the international balance of power as on "The West Wing." It's a TV show about a TV show. On the other hand, on a spiritual and social level, TV shows can make a pretty big impact on shaping our thinking and emotions, and so ultimately, our beliefs and actions. Like blogging when you should be sleeping or watching TV as you planned.

So much to little time

As “zero hour, 9 a.m.” (8:50, actually) is less than 32 hours away, I have to admit I don’t feel as ready to go as I would like or even as I think I ought to be…but Lord willing I’ll be on that plane ready or not, and glad to be there.

The great news is I’m fully funded thanks to some generous folks whose support is definitely appreciated. And the other forms of support I’ve received already, from the generous responses to my request for a ride to the airport, to prayers and good wishes, to patience in listening to me rattle on about my plans, are as important and highly valued.

Looks like we’ll have a good crowd for Saturday’s songwriting workshop and the concert that evening. The workshop has been the thing I have fretted over the most, and feel the least prepared for (hence more fretting), but I am trying to remind myself it is not all ON me or ABOUT me.

A song by my friend Audrey Hatcher Woodhams speaks to me as much today as when I first heard her perform it at the Koinonia Coffeehouse during a writers night hosted by Rob Frazier of Belmont Church:

(Audrey Hatcher Woodhams )

Why should I be discouraged?
And why should I be afraid
When my God is on my side?
My God is on my side

And He goes before me.
He stands behind me.
He watches over all my ways.
And He walks beside me.
He lives within me.
I am surrounded in His embrace,
Surrounded in His embrace.

Why should I feel forsaken?
And why should I feel alone
When my God is on my side?
Yes, my God is on my side.

(c) 2002 BMG Songs/ASCAP

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Choose to be thankful

Had a good time over Thanksgiving, seeing family and a couple of Chattanooga-area friends. I even braved the Black Friday shopping melee, at least to check out some prices, etc., but not early. The lines were still long around noon at a few places I visited, but I sensed the hardcore shoppers were already back home in bed.

It occurred to me that we may have the two holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas in the wrong order…maybe it would make more sense to find out all the stuff we got for Christmas, then express our thanks for it all?

But then I realized a couple of things. We’ve got so much to be thankful for, especially in America, that we don’t need more stuff to add to the list (generally speaking). And the best way to celebrate a holiday full of giving is with the grateful attitude we choose on that Thursday on Nov. right before we stuff ourselves (again, generally speaking). So Thanksgiving makes a nice warmup or prequel to Christmas. The challenge is to keep the attitude even after the tryptophan has worn off, and prices have gone back up to normal, and the really cold weather has arrived.

I’ve begun to take pictures with my new camera but haven’t downloaded any to be able to post. I’ll have to use work computers for that until I get a new pc myself…my current home machine is too obsolete to handle the software (if specs are to be believed). I chose picture quality and control over the sound recording feature of the other one I was looking at. I’m still not familiar enough with it to get great pics, even in the full-auto mode I’ve been using, but I’ll have about 5 hours in the airport in D.C. on Tuesday to practice. You have to be careful what you shoot at an airport though…as I found out by experience…’nother story.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Two weeks!

Two weeks can be a long time, or a short time. When you're waiting on a contractor to finish your remodel, two weeks is a long time. When you're waiting to get on a plane and make a 24-hour journey across the ocean, two weeks is a REALLY short time. Especially when it's actually two weeks minus one day. And counting.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Some days it just doesn’t pay to be rich & famous

[This has nothing to do with S. Africa; scroll down for that topic]

John. Faith. They had it all. Then they tried to fly just a little closer to the sun…attempting what only an elite few can do well: comedy. Not as easy as Leno and Letterman make it look on TV, is it, folks?

Trouble is, most people are apparently not taught to analyze the evidence before they come to conclusions (I do it by nature and thanks to reading lots of C.S. Lewis, but I’m not claiming perfection in this or any virtue). News and entertainment tend to come to us preconceived, previewed, and predigested. Hence the penchant for the masses to misconstrue raw or partial information...apparently the approach of the general public is “shoot first, ask questions later”...if they ask at all. And thanks to the media & the Internet, molehills become asteroids. It makes me worry how we maintain any traces of a democratic government (or do we?). John & Faith have found this out the hard way, though they should already have known.

Unlike many in both cases, I believe these two were simply trying to be funny...but I also believe there was enough revealed in their attempts at humor that were as offensive as what their accusers claimed.

First John Kerry tried to tell a joke and left out a small but crucial detail that not only ruined the joke but sounded like an insult to our troops. Unless it’s been removed by now, you can see it on YouTube (try not to let the title affect your judgment: ”Kerry Belittles U.S. Troops”
…and if you have, say, a few years of nothing else to do, you can read the 11,000 comments the video generated just on this site alone.

Thanks to a fellow blogger :

According to a “Kerry aide,” he was supposed to say this:
“I can’t overstress the importance of a great education. Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq.”

That’s a clear reference to Bush, who Kerry implies is dumb. But it came out like this:

“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Kerry's response to the uproar of angry protest was that it was a “botched joke” and that he was insulting the President, not the troops. I accept that explanation (though insulting the guy who beat you is pretty cheap). We’ve all been there, right—you’re telling a funny one, you get to the punch line and get that sickening feeling when you realize that, instead of laughter, you’ll soon be getting looks from your listeners that first say “I don’t get it” then “You’re a dork, but nice try.” Kerry doesn’t think the troops are stupid...he protested that the Republicans were taking advantage of both his mistake and the public’s eagerness to be manipulated by oversimplifications. No argument from me on that. In America we call it politics, and unfortunately it seems to work, as all parties have found.

Trouble is, he also seems to think the fact that we’re in Iraq is directly related to Bush’s intelligence and/or past academic prowess. But no President ever has been a one-man show, and the "leader of the free world" cannot afford not to rely on advisers. So while I admit I cringe a little at things like "nuke-ya-ler" and I do sense we'd all be in better shape if Bush were more analytical, I believe academics are only part--maybe a very small part--of the necessary leadership qualities for President, which include the ability to make an emotional connection with the public and with his staff. So Kerry’s joke-as-intended is kind of an arrogant use of oversimplification, too--"If only he were an intellectual like me...." Right. And who was Kerry's audience? Not hard to get an “amen” when you’re preaching to the choir. But it is kinda hard to make another person look dumb when you mess up a fairly simple jab. Reminds me of the guy in Interpersonal Communication class back at UTK who, in an "honesty exercise" involving notes to every other class member, called me a "dweed." I was more puzzled and amused than insulted ("is this a frat thing?").

As for the CMA (Country Music Assn.) awards on Monday, when they announced the winner of an award she was up for, she behaved on camera in a way that someone might if they a) were upset at who won, namely Carrie Underwood or b) were trying to pretend they were upset, as a joke. Message boards like the one at came alive with a debate over which was correct, and of course YouTube had its part until the video was pulled--it’s on now.
She finally put out a statement that she was just joking around and everyone should get real.

"The idea that I would act disrespectful towards a fellow musician is unimaginable to me," Hill said. "For this to become a focus of attention, given the talent gathered, is utterly ridiculous. Carrie is a talented and deserving female vocalist of the year."

Gary Borman, Hill's longtime manager, added that the singer's reaction was meant as a joke.

"I've worked with Faith for many years now, and the idea that she would ever insult or undermine another artist, let alone another human being's success, is absolutely preposterous," Borman said. "Those who know her know that she's incapable of such actions. She was being playful while the nominations were being read and playful after."

My "humble and correct opinion": she was joking, but that in itself was disrespectful.

Let’s look at the evidence she was joking. First, there’s not much chance she didn’t realize when she was on camera; there are red lights, there are monitors, there are floor directors, there is a certain way the cameraman relaxes when he’s been told he’s done, etc. She’s no novice to this.

Second, they were anouncing the nominees, she looked around as if to say “where’s that voice coming from? Tee-hee.” The attempt at humor begins.

Then, when Carrie Underwood’s name was called, she did what a shocked and horrified person might do…but out of order, and very quickly. In reality, a person told something shocking would 1. drop their smile 2. widen their eyes 3. say something like “what?!” and THEN 4. throw up their arms in angry/helpless resignation and storm off. She did the arm thing first; have you ever seen anyone do that? You don’t give up and then register shock (Faith, pay attention; this could help you in your next movie). I’ve seen the notorious video a few times; I don’t agree that her acting was all that convincing. But I get the joke. It’s just what everyone secretly wants to see at an awards show, right? Like car wrecks at NASCAR.

Finally...why would Faith Hill even care at this point about one more CMA? She makes a bazillion dollars a year as a pop star, has a pop star/cowboy as a husband, has beautiful kids and at least one huge home, makes women cry and applaud every 2 minutes on “Oprah’ (“Oh, she makes her own toast—my hero!”).... Is it possible she’s realized by now that awards are kind of pointless compared to what matters? Is it possible she has had enough experience being treated like a product/goddess that she’s realized stardom is kind of silly? Hey, making fun of it works for Bono.

However, what she did WAS kind of rude was that, even if she didn’t take it seriously, she knew there were people there who did, especially Carrie Underwood, for good reasons or bad. Does she go to weddings and offer bets on how long the marriage will last (out loud)? Also, her statement that she can't imagine that she could disrespect another artist (even by accident?), and then failing to see why other people COULD imagine it, is the very definition of arrogance, which by nature makes us blind to our potential faults. In her profession this seems to be an occupational hazard and a job requirement at the same time. It's the natural result of being unduly worshipped by millions and living the elevated lifestyle she does...and you have to have a high tolerance for adulation to get there in the first place. As with most celebrities, the amazing thing is that she's still, according to people who know her, generally a nice person. In fact, I'm sure in many way she really is still just a “Mississippi Girl”, and I don’t doubt she’s a fine woman...but really, does she think she’s the same person she was 15 or 20 years ago? Not likely, and no reason she should be. But it's hard not to believe your own p.r.

So, Faith, John...nice try, each of you, but let’s leave the comedy to the professionals (Lord knows most of ‘em need the work). Or at least rehearse the jokes a little more. I'll be glad to offer my consulting a price you'll find very affordable.

Y'all come!

Poster for Summer Songwriting Workshop, designed by Ricky de la Cruz, Cape Town

Monday, November 06, 2006

Living Hope: "Purpose Driven" and "faith-based"

Just ran across some interesting stories online about Living Hope.

This one even has pictures from the 2005 Brentwood BC team visit--my friends are famous! :D
"From Tennessee to Africa, churches work together to address AIDS"

This one is about the power of faith-based organizations, regardless of where the money comes from:

"SOUTH AFRICA: Faith makes a difference in AIDS care"

Monday, October 30, 2006

It's like Christmas shopping...without the crowds

Progress of the "slowly but surely" variety has been taking place on plans for the big trip to South Africa. Folks in Cape Town have been diligently working on advance publicity for the Summer Songwriting Workshop (as we have dubbed it; remember, Dec. 2--or 2 Dec. as they call it there--is summertime).

Still praying & waiting and (where possible) applying for financial support. But non-cash contributions are helpful and encouraging, as well:

Hit songwriter and Brentwood Baptist deacon Kelley Lovelace ("He Didn't Have To Be", "The Impossible") has donated a couple of copies of his excellent book "If You've Got a Dream, I've Got a Plan." This is an excellent overview of the music business from a songwriter's point of view.

The folks at the Nashville Songwriters Assn. International (NSAI) have offered a substantial amount of support; I dropped by the office (just down the street from my apt.) and came away with some neat gifts for the workshop attendees, with a pledge for even more "non-cash" support that I'm keeping as a surprise for now.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A few more visuals from Cape Town, 2005

Radio CCFm, just like the sign says, in Muizenberg. This is where we'll do the Summer Songwriting Workshop, Dec. 2. The Living Hope homeless shelter is across the street.

Our heroic hosts, Pastor John and Avril Thomas (left) and the logistics expert from Atlanta, Jay Johnson (right) with a couple of "clients" in Ocean View community

A proud mother and her child, in the township of Masiphumelele

Kayalitsha, a township on the edge of Cape Town

I could look at those colors all day, too.

Boys in da hood (Masiphumelele)

A couple of representatives of the future of South Africa, and an "investor"--a teacher (Masiphumelele)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A picture is worth a thousand blogs

I've had some encouraging and, in a couple of cases surprising, responses from friends and acquaintances who've heard about my upcoming journey to South Africa. All very much appreciated.

Plans for the songwriting workshop (if that's what we end up calling it) are progressing, via e-mail. I'm collecting some books, DVD's etc. to offer as prizes/gifts. Gary Talley happens to have been the first contributor to that cause.

I'm shopping for a digital camera (it'll be my first). The Minolta X-370 I've had since I graduated from college has served me well over the years, but it's time to get something smaller that I can take with me without making people think I work for National Geographic...then I can share that much more of my experiences with you. I've got my eye on a Samsung Digimax L50 that has an audio-only recording feature; perfect for the picture-taking songwriter on the go (or amateur spy, whichever). Open to advice from the audience....

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A few visuals from Cape Town, 2005

Table Mountain dominates this view of the city from Robben Island, the island where prisoners, lunatics and out-of-luck rulers were exiled.

View of Cape Town from Table Mountain.

How do you say "en garde" in Xhosa?

"Amen" is a universal hit..."sing a little louder..."

My inner child is great at coloring.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The mission continues...solo

Anyone who has had any communication with me over the last two years, whether in person, via e-mail or by phone, has probably heard references to South Africa. My conversation has been peppered (or scattered, smothered and covered) with information about my adventures there, the South African people I met there (and here), their history and current situation, even movies about South Africa I've managed to find in the library. (I see those eyes rolling…it's OK…it's the same look I get from people in Nashville when I admit I'm a songwriter).

In 2004 and 2005 I traveled to Cape Town as part of volunteer groups from Brentwood Baptist Church, working with Living Hope, a church-based organization whose myriad outreach efforts include a hospice, a radio station, a homeless shelter and clinical care for those suffering from the HIV/AIDS crisis that has burdened that nation more than most. Pastor John Thomas, Executive Director of Living Hope, has provided visionary leadership to the faith-filled congregation of King of Kings Baptist Centre and others to accomplish amazing things in their community-enough to warrant visits from our own White House staff. I have continued to stay in contact with the folks over there, while BBC has continued to partner with Living Hope in their work.

As plans were made by BBC to send another team (who are there as I write this), it seemed less and less appropriate for me to join them, given my work schedule and my desire to pursue activities that would not easily have fit the team's agenda. So I decided to go on my own. I've corresponded with Avril Thomas in Cape Town, wife of Pastor Thomas and Branch Manager of one of the Living Hope locations. She agreed to be my local supervisor and help facilitate as much useful music-related work (if you call it work) as I can squeeze into my one week there.

After a lot of prayer, checking details, gauging potential support (and a smidgin of procrastination to see if time would prove this to be a bad idea-so far, so good), I've taken a step of faith by purchasing my plane tickets. So, barring any drastic events over the next two months, I'll be departing for Cape Town on Nov. 28 for a 24-hour journey to a faraway land that is foreign in many ways, yet familiar in many others. I'll be going by myself, but I know I won't be alone, if you know what I mean (and I'm not referring to the other passengers or incognito security personnel).

Combining what I believe I have to offer and the needs of the ministry there, we have come up with a tentative schedule of activities. These include a music seminar or writers' retreat; this is part of a monthly series of seminars, organized by the radio station, aimed to equip area musicians to improve their craft and enhance their ability to minister through music. Avril has also suggested I meet with several of the various HIV/AIDS support groups in various locations, offering a song or two and encouraging them to write about their own experiences as a sort of therapy. This is a sobering assignment, and I am open to any help I can get on the best ways to approach it. There will be a team of volunteers there hosting Christmas parties for underprivileged children, so there's a chance I'll get to put my experience working with kids (including all those Chattanooga riverboat Santa Claus cruises) to use as well. World AIDS Day will be observed while I am there, so there may be a possibility of being involved in that somehow.

In fact, there are several ways in which you can be part of this continuation of a worthy project.

You can 1) pray. Pray for me as I prepare, spiritually, musically, physically, mentally, and financially. Pray for safe travel to and within the country. Pray for the people I’ll be working alongside. And pray for the souls that may be touched, even if in some small way, through my efforts, even if I don’t see the results (we seldom do, really).

You can 2) e-mail and let me know I have your support.

And 3) you can make a donation to the cause (of any amount). If you want to make a tax-deductible donation, make a check out to “Brentwood Baptist Church” and be sure to put “Mark Hall South Africa trip” or to that effect on the “for” line, and send it to:

Brentwood Baptist Church
Attn: Kim Cox
7777 Concord Road
Brentwood, TN 37027

If you want to keep the the donation anonymous, include a note to Kim. Donations can be accepted as late as mid-December, (even though the trip will be done by then).

My budget will be roughly $2500, (somewhat less if I don’t rent a car), including $1500 travel and about $400 for meals and lodging at the Team House (a place especially set up for missionary housing). Other expenses would be for materials for the music seminar, etc.

If you’d like to keep up with my progress you can check this blog and/or let me know and I’ll keep you updated via e-mail or letter.

For more info on Living Hope, see

For a brief summary of the history of AIDS in Africa:

And if you want to see footage of Bono shaking hands with Sen. Jesse Helms in one of the strangest proactive partnerships ever (as well as the history of HIV/AIDS including the evangelical response), see the PBS Frontline documentary "The Age of AIDS." Buy the DVD or watch it online:

Grace & Peace,

Mark Kelly Hall

"The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me." -Matthew 25:40