Last month, amid reports of rocket launches in North Korea, a handful of Augusta pastors and musicians were quietly making history.
They were part of a men’s choir that performed in North Korea and China.
The 150-member Sons of Jubal, who are ministers from churches across the Georgia Baptist Convention, is the largest group of Americans to visit North Korea in decades, according to Global Resource Services, an Atlanta nonprofit that coordinated the trip.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We made history,” said the Rev. Roy Kiser, an associate pastor with senior adults at First Baptist Church of North Augusta. He has sung in the choir for 14 years.
The choir performed American show tunes, Korean folk songs and a few hymns at various venues, including a Beijing Christian church; the Morang Hill Symphony Hall, the home of the North Korean National Symphony Orchestra; and a spring festival celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, the first rule or North Korea, who died in 1994.
For those two weeks, members of Sons of Jubal were celebrities everywhere they went, said the Rev. Keith Burrow, an associate minister of music and senior adults at First Baptist Church of Augusta, who has sung in the choir for five years.
“We were the first Americans a lot of them had ever met,” he said.
The performances took more than three years of planning and six months of rehearsals. The choir worked hard to learn How Great Thou Art in Chinese, and a few traditional Korean songs, Burrow said.
“Music has a way of breaking down barriers in ways other things can’t,” he said. “You could feel the two people groups coming together, all because we sang in their language.”
Between concerts, the group did a little sightseeing, stopping at both the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square. Under military escort, the group toured the north side of the demilitarized zone that separates North Korea from South Korea.
Upon returning from the tour, church members have asked Burrow whether he ever felt scared while traveling through the communist countries.
“Not once,” he said. “Because of the (political) relations between us and them, we really didn’t know what to expect. We saw over and over again that people are people no matter where they are.”
“They rolled out the red carpet for us,” he said. “Everyone was friendly, personable. They made quite the positive impression.”
So did one translator in particular, Burrow said.
“Our guide told us, ‘I will never look at Americans the same way again.’ She said, ‘I hope you never look at Koreans the same way again either.’ ”