My teacher Avon Gillespie used to answer the question, “What have you been up to?” with “The usual missionary work.” It was his way of acknowledging that the Orff approach had a spiritual component that could convert people and change them. I understood his meaning, but never liked the metaphor. For missionary work, developed and spread by Christians, was—and is—always based on a cultural arrogance and sense of superiority that the heathens needed to be converted to be saved from eternal damnation. It assumed that “our God” was the true one and “their god or gods” were childish illusions, that our way of worship was correct and theirs was bizarre, that their souls were in need of salvation according to our terms. It sometimes brought useful things like schools and hospitals, but always at a high cultural price.
Like Avon, I too travel around the world spreading the “good news,” but always as an invitation to take or leave and always to be integrated within existing cultures, not to replace them. Sometimes the pedagogy stands in opposition to certain cultural norms— things like valuing questioning the teacher instead of blind acceptance, encouraging women to lead and openly express themselves, awakening the body through dance. But virtually every culture has such threads hidden somewhere in the fabric of their history and its just a question of accent.
Thoughts of retirement continue to swirl around me, questions of “what am I doing with my life?’ have always been with me. I came across a quote in the novel The Signature of All Things that speaks well to these things. The speaker is a 77-year old Englishman with a modest church in Tahiti in the 1800’s. He is asked why he doesn’t return to England after all these years and he replies:
“I live where I am meant to live. I could never leave my mission, you see. My work here is not an errand. My work here is not a line of employment from which a man may retire into a comfortable dotage. My work is to keep this little church alive for all my days, as a raft against the winds and sorrows of the world. Whosoever wishes to board my raft may do so. I do not force anyone to come aboard, you see, but how can I abandon the raft?” (p. 382)
Substitute school or workshop for church and that’s my life. An 8th grader wrote the other day, “I’ve been here for 11 years, through good times and bad, but the music class was always the place I could escape to.” Her raft against “the winds and sorrows of the world.”
And so I paddle down any river that presents itself and all are welcome aboard. Missionary work, Orff Schulwerk style. Grab an oar! It’s fun!