Kirby finds Cubans #039;hungry#039; for the Word of God on musical mission trip

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 29, 2004

If Doc Kirby had thought about what was going on around him, he could not have played a note.

Hearing the voices of 800-plus Cuban Christians swelling over the music of the orchestra was overwhelming.

"To think that nine years ago the people of Cuba could not even acknowledge their Christian beliefs without fear of persecution or execution and, for them to be able to gather in a public place and sing 'How Great Thou Art,' was such a moving experience that I couldn't let myself think about it," Kirby said.

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Kirby was one of 18 American musicians who participated in Project: Cuba, a Global Missions Project in Havana March 19-27.

The mission objective was to work directly with International Mission Board personnel to build and establish relationships with musicians of the National Band of Cuba through concerts and one-on-one contact.

Kirby believes that his whole life to that point had been spent in preparation for that experience.

"I had always wanted to go on an overseas mission trip, but I had never felt that I had been called," he said. "But, when my brother, Dennis, asked me if I would like to participate in Project: Cuba I knew it was my calling."

Kirby is a Methodist minister and also an accomplished musician. He has been playing trumpet since he was 12 years old. A mission music trip seemed to be tailor-made for him. And, to make the experience even more memorable and meaningful, it would be shared with his brothers, Dennis and Steve. There was no doubt in Kirby's mind that he had been called to this mission.

"We were told that we were ordained for the trip


that it was no accident that we were there," Kirby said. "And I believe that's true. We were able to use our musical gifts to share the word of God and we were able to form friendships with Christian people there that I would hate not to see again this side of heaven."

The Project: Cuba musicians played six concerts, three in Baptist churches, one in a Methodist church and two public concerts with the National Band of Cuba.

"The churches were packed each time we played," Kirby said. "We played both the old hymns and new praise songs and the people sang with every song - old and new. They sang in Spanish and they sang with so much feeling. We closed each concert with 'How Great Thou Art' and that was an awesome experience for all of us."

Cuba is no longer a Marxist country but the Communist influence is still strong there.

"Communism doesn't allow religion," Kirby said. "It's an atheist culture."

However, today, slightly more than 50 percent of the country's 11 million people are Christian. Forty-seven percent of the people are Catholic, 4 percent Protestant and 2 percent Santeria.

Kirby said the Cuban Christians are hungry and eager for God's word.

"Many of them don't own a Bible," he said. "We were able to take Bibles to share with them. When one man was given a Bible, he started to cry. That was the first time he had held a Bible in his hands and he was 60 years old. These people are amazing Christians."

As the members of the American band shared their love of Jesus with the people of Cuba, Kirby said their own faith was strengthened.

"They are such wonderful people and strong Christians," he said. "They have so little and live so humbly. But, they live by the blood of Christ and they are happy and their happiness shows. It came through as they sang with the band. We were moved by their witness."

The final two concerts the American musicians played were with the National Band of Cuba, one in the National Auditorium and the other on the square in Havana.

Kirby said the musicians in the National Band are "amazing" and they quickly formed lasting bonds with many of them.

"The band members make $16 a month in American money and the soloists make $18 a month," he said. "The director makes $30 a month and doesn't even own a car.

We took them a new set of Congo drums. The ones they had were 30 years old. They had one tuba that was 100 years old. We took them reeds for the woodwind instruments and they were so appreciative. It was an honor to play with them."

On Friday, the American group played with the National Band at the National Auditorium and it was "absolutely" packed to overflowing, 800 or more.

"The Cubans keep up with American music," Kirby said. Havana is a musical happening place and there was a great deal of excitement surrounding the concert. The audience sang along with the band and applauded for two minutes or more after each piece. It was amazing."

The American music group was the first to perform in concert with the National Band of Cuba and the group might be the first Americans to play some of the songs that were played.

Although the National Band is a secular band, the concert ended with "How Great Thou Art" And, the people sang along and seemed to be deeply moved.

Perhaps no one was more moved than Kirby who played a solo part of the great old hymn and was joined by musicians on the piano and bass guitar.

"You could hear their voices swelling over the music and it was such a moving experience that, if I had thought about it, I couldn't have played," he said.

In the audience was the wife of Moises Dumingo, the director of the National Band.

"Moises had played French horn with us in the last two church concerts that we performed," Kirby said. "His wife had attended those concerts, too. After the concert at the National Auditorium, she came to us and suggested that we close the open-air concert on the square on Saturday with 'How Great Thou Art' and also 'Shout to the Lord' which we had played in the church concerts.

"Because it was a secular concert and because we didn't want to get the National Band in trouble, we were a bit skeptical. But Moises' wife assured us that it would be alright."

The musicians in the National Band did not know the music for "Shout to the Lord," copies had to be made.

"We had to find a black-market copy machine to make the copies so we could play the song Moises' wife requested


really insisted


that we play," Kirby said.

On Saturday, the stage was set for the final concert of the mission trip and the musicians were prepared to close the concert with one of the favorite hymns of all times and one of the most popular praise songs on the day.

People packed the square and, as in the other concerts, sang every word of every song. When the hymn and praise song were played, Kirby said the spirit of the Lord filled the place.

"We knew that we had come to the right place and we knew that we had been richly blessed by being there," Kirby said.