Notes on a Symphony of Godliness

Jan 31, 2024 | by Daisy Hutzell-Rodman

“Again,” Matt Walter, western divisional music director, said to a group of intermediate-level musicians on a sweltering January day. He picked up his instrument and demonstrated that he wanted the musicians, who ranged from youth to seniors, to play their chosen song more rhythmically.

He did not say “again,” however; he said “de novo,” the term for “again” in Portuguese, one of the phrases he picked up in Brazil on a mission trip he and Maj. Stephanie Sawka attended from Jan. 7 through Jan. 20. Sawka, Walter, and a team that included Capt. Alex Yanez of Omaha Kroc Center and his daughter, Camilla, spent more than 10 days in the 80-90-degree weather of the southern hemisphere assisting with a music camp in Porto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil.

“I got to see God’s work in action,” Sawka said of their trip to the southernmost state of Brazil. “Often in our country, we have everything provided that we need, or we can get what we need. We have a music camp every summer, but these kids, they haven’t had a music camp in that region for 15 years.”

One of the team members, a pastor in Mason City, Iowa, impressed Sawka by serving as chaplain along with connecting with the students to explore music with them, teaching the word of God as well as how to play the guitar.

The students at the camp made great sacrifices for the rare opportunity to attend this camp. One female student sold her hair to afford the trip, and another student’s family sold their pet dog. Musicians traveled by walking several miles, or via public transportation, some for as many as 20 hours, for the chance to play at this music camp. While the American contingent may not have spoken fluent Portuguese, and the Brazilians may not have spoken fluent English, the language of music brought them all together.

“Some of the young kids there were just truly amazing,” said Sawka, who taught the beginner-level classes. “One of them was the pastor’s son. This young man knew a few words of English, but worked tirelessly throughout the week. He was there almost every day, playing and trying to learn English. He made us feel welcome.”

Walter, meanwhile, learned that any material item is prized in a country, and community, where new items are uncommon. He brought 50 T-shirts with him, giving the shirts away as prizes for music contests throughout the week. The shirts were so sought-after Walter gave away his own T-shirts, returning to Omaha with the last one, which he needed on his own back.

Along with teaching around 100 students dance, vocal music, and instrumental music, the Omaha continent of The Salvation Army assisted with building maintenance at the Santa Maria Corps in Rio Grande do Sul. The original intent was to paint the outside fencing around the Corps, but wild weather—including straight-line winds that blew rain sideways at least one day—sent the contingent inside the non-air-conditioned building to paint walls, repair wiring, and, according to Sawka, “power-sort” donated items in the thrift store.

The trip showed this dedicated team the lesson of resilience when the storm came through and shut down the plumbing that week.

“Someone...suggested we go home or change our tickets,” Sawka said. “I said, ‘No, we’re not changing our tickets. We can survive this. We have drinking water that’s clean, we have a place to lay our heads.”

Although the team may have been, essentially, camping for a week, many of those in Brazil daily live without plumbing, or electricity, or painted walls.

“Everything, every small thing, meant so much to these people,” Walter said. He and Sawka concurred that they “definitely learned not to take anything for granted.”

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