by Brian Allan
Welcome to the greatest country in the whole world!” Alberto Rapley’s words of pride and enthusiasm greeted me as I stepped off the bus from the airport in Panama, the country of his birth.
As members of the Chicago Staff Band (CSB), we were in Panama to help lead a territorial music camp for the Latin America North Territory. Following it, we also played open-air concerts and a formal evening festival in Panama City.
Held at the Panama Divisional Headquarters (DHQ), the eight-day camp drew 150 students, ages 8 to 63, from Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Venezuela. Staying at a Salvation Army facility an hour away from the DHQ required them to leave the housing by 6:00 a.m. and return after 10:00 p.m. Though they had long days and little sleep, I didn’t hear delegates complain. Mostly, everyone smiled, uplifting the atmosphere.
Tracks were offered in brass, chorus, percussion, bass, guitar, dance, timbrels, and lira (think marching band bells). Most tracks were led by CSB members, who also trained students in leadership so they could share their knowledge with others.
When asked to write this article, I thought I’d go through the camp activities and list the concerts played and repertoire performed. I’d brag about the 24 slides we loosened and pulled from ancient instruments. But halfway through camp, I began to think I couldn’t write that way because something exceptional was happening. By the end, I was sure of it. While words seem inadequate to capture what occurred, perhaps you can get an idea through some of our experiences.
We began the camp concert with Let There Be Light (Paul Sharman) which starts with a thunderous shot note which grabs attention but startles the audience. Yet someone who attended the concert told Bryant Erickson (2nd cornet) that the first note touched their soul. “I will always remember how God’s power can become evident through just one note,” Bryant reflected.
After spending the week teaching and working with brass players, A/Captain Paul Bowyer (Bb bass) said, “What I didn’t expect was what I would learn. The infectious joy and happiness I experienced from the students and staff as the week went on, their passion for worshipping through music, was exciting and very inspiring.”
Following our concert at the bus terminal, Commissioner Heidi Bailey shared: “As the Panama National Anthem was played, an immediate connection was made and singing erupted from the group that had quickly gathered. In the middle of a loud, fastmoving, hot and chaotic world, the band became the calm…As the band played ‘Amazing Grace,’ a passerby approached me and said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God. Thank you for bringing peace to our anxious lives.’”
I was fortunate to spend the week watching Morgan Marinelli (solo horn) work wonders with the second horn section, consisting of an alto sax player and two 8- year-old boys. The youngsters didn’t speak a word of English and were tired for much of the camp.
“Me with my high school level Spanish and them with their knowledge of a C scale, we made music. We had jokes. We had secret handshakes. They gave me friendship bracelets. We played brass band music when they were awake, and I showed them note by note which valves to push down,” said Morgan. “Here, with the help of youth workers of The Salvation Army in Panama, they’re playing instruments. They’re learning scales. They’re learning about Jesus. They’re being shown that they have a community and a God who loves them.”
During the camp I believe I witnessed a miracle. Jude St.-Aimé (Bb tuba) and I were sitting near the choir room during a break between rehearsals when a young lady walked in and ask if Jude would listen to music she’d written and recorded. Agreeing, he listened intently to the music on her phone, bobbing his head with the tune. Afterward, he walked over to the piano and began playing her song, and she began singing. When they were finished, we were all crying.
“You will never know how much it means to me to have a real musician listen to and affirm my music,” she said. “I thought of being done with this, but I won’t quit now.”
I’d had a front-row seat to God changing this girl’s life.
From two young boys learning scales and about Jesus to a bystander finding peace in our music at a bus terminal to a young woman who was encouraged to keep writing music, God used the CSB on this trip. Any member can give you a personal example. He also changed us. None of us is the same as when we arrived in the greatest country in the world.