Two couples to join South American singing tour

Two Hillsboro men will be among 16 men from three states and three Canadian provinces who have formed a choir for a two-week ?tourist-singing? trip to Paraguay and Brazil in April.

Jonah Kliewer and Clarence Hiebert, both professor emeritus at Tabor College, will be making the trip along with their wives, Elinor Kliewer and Ferne Hiebert. Twelve other spouses will travel with the group. They will also sing a few selections as well as joining the men in several songs.

All 16 men have a connection with Tabor College, where either they or their children sang in ensembles through the past half-century.

Their enjoyment of singing triggered this venture. They credit their musical interests to the leadership of three of Tabor?s well-known music professors since the 1940s: professors Herbert C. Richert, Paul Wohlgemuth and Kliewer.

Hiebert and Kliewer were key instigators of this particular tour.

?Jonah and I are both retired and antsy,? Hiebert says. ?We talked about it and said why don?t we get the guys together and take an overseas trip like you and I have done with Tabor groups (in the past).?

The pair focused on South America in part because trips to Mennonite-related sites in Europe have begun to overtax the hosts.

?I?m opposed to going there in groups because they can hardly fit us in,? Hiebert says. ?South America is becoming that. But the whole South American Mennonite situation is such a fascinating story. This was something that interested (the other choir members) a good bit.?

Prior to their final, three-day rehearsal in Miami before their April 17 departure, the group is holding regional rehearsals in California and Kansas.

Paraguay and Brazil were chosen for several reasons. The story of the establishment and development of the Mennonites who began coming there in the late 1920s has been inspirational, Hiebert says.

The first contingent that came from Manitoba was a conservative, German-speaking, ?Old Colony Mennonite? group that established Menno Colony in a relatively uninhabited region of Paraguay?s Chaco.

Within a few years, additional, German-speaking immigrants came. These were largely from Russia, victims of repressive measures following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. They were in search of religious freedom and a viable, economic living situation.

Paraguay was one of the few countries in the world that was prepared to accept immigrants at that time.

Tour members share aspects of their history with these South American Mennonites, including common principles of Christian belief and practices with their Mennonite forebears who came to North America from Russia after the 1870s. This visit offers opportunities for the forming of friendships through music-making, worship and interactive dialogue on common topics and issues.

The area to be visited includes the Paraguayan Chaco, historically referred to as the ?Green Hell,? populated only by a few nomadic native tribes prior to the coming of the Mennonites.

The severe living conditions in the Chaco had been regarded as almost unbearable for most people. Some Europeans attempted to do settle the region earlier but soon abandoned the venture.

After 1930, however, in spite of almost insurmountable hurdles, the first contingent came and remained. Other refugee immigrants, desperate for a place to reside, joined them. Their firm determination, along with the creative skills they brought and their and the devout faith, gradually resulted in the ?taming? of this so-called Green Hell.

Now, some describe the Chaco as a ?fruitful garden in the wilderness.? Today the colonies have become major suppliers of dairy, meat and other food and clothing products for Paraguay?s 5 million citizens.

Their endeavors in the Chaco through the years have been recognized by some anthropologists a major factor in developing one of the world?s most successful socio-economic changes of a nomadic people who chose to abandon that lifestyle in order to become a settled people.

Also, a sizeable number of Paraguay?s more dominant Hispanic people living among Mennonites have embraced their faith and established Mennonite congregations.

Since they came largely out of German-speaking colonies in Russia, the language they used as immigrants was ?High German? and a folk dialect called?Low German.?

The languages now used among them in schools, business and worship include Spanish. Many also speak English.

Those involved in Christian outreach, church planting and social services have mastered additional native languages: like Lengua, Nivacle (Chulupi), Toba, Guarani.

During the final four days of the trip, the singing tourists will be in Brazil?also to visit Mennonites.

Brazilian Mennonites also began coming to South America seven decades ago and have been influential among fellow Brazilians in establishing schools, business enterprises and churches, Hiebert says.

Most Brazilian Mennonites live in more urban areas, notably in and around Curitiba and Sao Paulo.

The concerts presented in cities and villages, in churches, schools, community auditoriums will be interspersed with opportunities to tour, dialogue and, in some instances, to stay in their homes.

Their musical repertoire is English. However, they also sing in Spanish, Portuguese, High German, Low German, Russian and one African song.

Many in the tourist group have conversational skills in Low German and several in High German. At least one member is fluent in Portuguese and another in Spanish.

The 16 men and their spouses?30 people in all?hail from Kansas (15), California (8), Oregon (2), British Columbia (2), Manitoba (2) and Ontario (1).

In addition to the Kliewers and Hieberts, other group members with local ties include Eldred and Evelyn Kunkel, San Jose, Calif., parents of Bruce Kunkel of Hillsboro, and Tom Klein, brother of Connie Suderman, DeVona Roble and Todd Klein, all of Hillsboro.

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