It’s been nearly two months since I last trained with the CCF (Christ’s Commission Fellowship) Adult Choir because of personal commitments, and I was unsure as to what was going on with the practices because I can’t seem to find any updates. I’m still new, have only rehearsed with them a handful of times, and only know a handful of people – most were only acquaintances. Then I saw a post about the upcoming Choir Training in relation to the upcoming Black Gospel Sunday celebration. The Black Gospel Sunday celebration was no stranger to me. Even back when the congregation was in St. Francis Square, CCF already had a yearly Black Gospel celebration. I always see the stage packed and full of singers, and of course Ray Sidney, who would always lead the worship during that grand celebration. It was always fun to see a different way as to how we can worship Jesus in the church. I was curious and was interested in singing with the choir for that joyous celebration.
For the choir, our training would be led by Ken Taylor. I didn’t actually know who he was before the workshop started but he looked familiar. I didn’t do any background check on him (which I usually do when it comes to various speakers, regardless if it’s a conference or a training) and went on my way to the workshop, which started at one in the afternoon. Then Ken (now I call him Tito Ken) came in. I didn’t really expect much because I don’t know him that well – or at all, rather.
He started our session by giving us a short background of who he is and what he is doing. Never did I imagine that Tito Ken was living in Japan for over how many decades already. He lived with his family in Japan since and has been coming back to the Philippines, yearly, to help out in the Black Gospel celebration in CCF. I never noticed him because in my mind, whenever the CCF Choir would come out and sing in any occasion, it would always be conducted by [Kuya] Jomar Ferreria, the CCF Choir’s conductor who was already conducting the adult choir since I was still a part of the kids’ choir. Tito Ken and his wife were musicians even before they got to know Jesus personally. He was a jazz pianist and his wife, Bola, was a singer. The Lord called them to Japan to evangelize and minister to the Japanese, so that’s what they did. In the early ‘90s, “Sister Act”, which starred Whoopi Goldberg hit the charts and Black Gospel was on its peak. Japanese people were interested in Black Gospel and thus started the idea of using Black Gospel to share Jesus with the Japanese. Ever since then, the Taylors have been ministering to the Japanese through Black Gospel and has slowly but surely been an instrument in making a mark to the latter.
He then refreshed us after a five-minute break with the song “Praise the Lord with Me” (which is often one of the song choices during Black Gospel celebration in CCF) and taught us a new song called “Grateful” by Kurt Carr. I learned the steps that they often use in “Praise the Lord with Me” (which was a blast, by the way) and moved on to “Grateful” where Tito Ken emphasized why he wanted us to try the song out. He explained that the song, despite its tune being distinctly familiar with the Blues genre (which would depict a range of emotions – usually expressed with anguish, sadness, or despair), the lyrics on the other hand would emphasize the opposite – to be filled with gratitude because of what Jesus did, is doing, and will do in our lives.
He elaborated later on that “Grateful” was personal. “Can I be grateful for that? It’s a hard picture for me to look at.” he uttered, showing a photo of his wife’s resting place in a Japanese cemetery. Bola (or Tita Bola as I would’ve called her) passed away three years ago after battling with advanced ovarian cancer. Tito Ken said that instead of using cancer as an excuse, Tita Bola would continue to let her family and other people fix their eyes on Jesus. “She taught me how not to do it my way, but to go to the Source. She taught me the life lessons of not to be fearful, but to live by faith. Not to panic, but to have the peace of God, and not to worry, but learn how to worship,” Tito Ken explained to us.
What struck me the most (and almost made me tear up as well) is when he shared to us what he would think he would do after Tita Bola’s passing. “[Y]ou know, I wasn’t sure if I should stay in Japan. My kids all have gone, and then God took home my wife, and I was saying ‘There’s really no more reason for me to be in Japan’. Really…except for God. One month after Bola passed away, this is what God revealed to me – everyone would’ve understood if I went back to the US and left.”
He then continued to show us a picture of a thousand people in a choir-like formation with him looking at them. He then continued, “[t]his was 1,300 Japanese Gospel singers and we have been planning for it. One month after Bola passed away, I had to be so far back by myself, standing, and there were three rafters up there. It was a lonely place for me and I felt very, very alone, except that God said: ‘Look at all these Japanese’. And it became very clear to me that my life, my calling is to be faithful to God.” When Tito Ken said those words, it made me think about my mission for Jesus and if I have been faithful to God after trials and struggles of my own. ‘Have I been faithful in the places that he has been putting me, or was I only complaining because it wasn’t within my comfort zone,’ I thought to myself. I saw in Tito Ken’s eyes that he loved his wife and I also saw his love for Jesus and his commitment to God’s calling in his life.
After that workshop, we (the choir) met with Tito Ken two more times within the week for the actual rehearsals for the Black Gospel celebration and would study the songs. From vocalizations, harmonies, blockings, and technical rehearsals, we would do our best for the Lord. Then Saturday came. It was hours away before the Black Gospel celebration. It was during those days that I was able to get to know more people within the choir. Slowly but surely, I have met, talked, and laughed with a number of people. I was able to get to know them better and even share common interests and countless stories. I felt at home – finally. I was out of my shell and was confidently engaging with them.
It was Sunday. I had woken up eerily as I get ready for over 13 hours of dancing and singing with the entire congregation for four worship services. We were all dressed up in our dark denims, our plain white tees, and our black Exalt jackets as we arrived at the CCF Center for soundcheck. We also joined the Saints Dance Ministry in their warm-up and stretching exercises (out of curiosity). We lifted and surrendered all our preparations to God and sung our hearts out.
We were invited by Dr. Peter Tan-chi, the Senior Pastor, to attend the first worship service after singing. In his message, he talked about being a ‘peacemaker’ and how to have peace with God. The answer? With Jesus. How? By faith – we need to start trusting God instead of ourselves. He said that a peacemaker takes initiative (Matthew 5:23-24); a peacemaker speaks the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15); a peacemaker asks for forgiveness and forgives others (Colossians 3:13); and a peacemaker reconciles people to God and one another (2 Corinthians 5:18, Matthew 5:9). What struck me the most is when Pastor Peter gave the question: “When people look at us, do they see God?” Sometimes, we would often fail to see that even the minutest of our actions would affect other people’s perception of Jesus, since we should be ambassadors of Christ after all.
Throughout the day, four services of intense passion, power, (perspiration because the lights on stage were so hot despite the Main Hall being so cold) and perseverance kept us from straining our voice. I had so much fun throughout the day that I would gladly continue on for at least four more services before my body would ache all night long.
During in-betweens, the choir would often do three things: we would either (1) eat, because the food given throughout the day was so sumptuous; (2) chat with each other and would get to know each other more; see how are they with work, family, and would ask if the harmony that they know is correct; and the crowd favorite is (3) TAKING LOADS OF SELFIES! Believe me when I say we would take selfies while sprinting our way to the backstage. We even have one along the hallway near the backstage doors because we thought that it looked like we were in an airport (#ChoirGoesToDubai HAHAHA). We would take numerous selfies with each other, with Tito Ken, and with Ray. It also warmed my heart when they brought out cakes for the birthday celebrants from May to July. They sang “Happy Birthday” to us and of course, we all took a slice of those wonderful cakes. It made me see how strong the choir is as a family. I was, indeed, filled with joy.
Throughout our performances, what hit me close to home was the song “My Tribute”. Why? Because of two things: First is, I remember that whenever Tito Ken and Ray would go to Manila for Black Gospel Sunday celebrations, this song would often be sung by Ray and Tita Bola. Only this time, Tita Ayen Veria-Amargo sang the female lead with Ray. I would look at Tito Ken looking at them and would feel the nostalgia and how he felt. I know that he is secured in God and to see him stand faithfully before God, leading us through the song four times, was an awestruck moment (that almost made me tear up again). Second is, as I reflect on the song and after what my attitude is with God, I realized that God doesn’t deserve the things I gave Him after He has given so much for me. I have been trying to boost self-confidence by boosting myself, but I fear that it would lead me to boosting arrogance instead of Jesus. For weeks, I know that I have not been putting Jesus in the center. Just like the lyrics in the song, if I gain any praise, whether it be through my voice, my actions, my writings, or my decisions, let it go to Jesus.
After that celebration, it dawned upon me how gracious and glorious God is in my life and how he uses other people to lead me back and closer to Him. He used the choir to help me understand the importance of unity in diversity – different voices for one purpose: Jesus! He also used Tito Ken and Ray in molding and honing our skills as singers for God’s Kingdom and to let us understand that in spite of different callings, we are to serve Jesus and to always continue to be faithful, no matter how hard and difficult circumstances may be. Lord, you are indeed an awesome God! Let us continue to hold on to Jesus! KU JESU BAMBELELA!
UPDATE [July 24, 2018; 11:34PM]: If you guys missed the celebration, here’s the video of the Praise and Worship last Sunday! Turn the volume up and celebrate Jesus with us!