Jazz, Jesus and the Winter Games

Musical Missionaries: University of Mobile Students in Sochi Share Their Faith Through Dixieland

Reprinted with permission of AL.com/Press-Register

While the eyes of the world were focused on the XXII Winter Olympic Games, a group from the University of Mobile was working behind the scenes in Sochi, spreading the gospel with Dixieland jazz.

By day, five students and assistant professor Kenn Hughes performed in a Dixieland Jazz Band in Sochi’s public plazas, playing favorites such as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “Down by the Riverside.” They also handed out trading pins attached to Russian language Christian tracts. At night, they slept on a cruise ship docked in a nearby harbor.

“We figured a Dixieland Jazz Band was portable enough, cost-effective enough and Americana enough to create some interest,” said Hughes.

The idea came from University of Mobile supporter Susan Turner of Mobile, who had previously worked with the Baptist-affiliated International Mission Board in Russia with her daughter, Jordi Garner. The two returned with a burden on their hearts for Sochi, which they relayed to leaders at the university.

Several questions needed to be answered, Hughes said. “Are we going to be effective in that situation? Is this going to pay dividends?”

It was decided that on a five-day trip, the band would be able to draw a crowd, offer reading materials and steer locals to English classes run by Baptist missionaries in Russia. The missionaries could then invite people to Bible studies and possibly plant new churches. In the Athletes’ Village, the group could perform and answer questions, but could not proselytize.

Plans for the trip gelled last fall when Hughes created a band of students involved in various music pursuits at the college. It was the first time most of them had ever played Dixieland jazz. Members included Josh Holley of Silverhill (drums), Chris Rowell of Palmer, Alaska, (clarinet), Kory Van Matre of Mobile (trumpet), Harrison Hughes of Mobile (baritone), Nathan Dodd of Birmingham (banjo) and Hughes (trombone).

Turner, her daughter and a translator from the university, artistin- residence and Kazakhstan native Kadisha Onalbayeva, would travel with them.

At first, it wasn’t easy for the students to convince their families and friends that they would be safe at the Sochi Games, where there were growing fears of terrorism. “Everyone in the group had someone in their lives telling them they shouldn’t be going because of security concerns,” Hughes said.

The group encountered no trouble. Strict security measures prohibited the band from carrying their instrument cases on trains, so they took buses instead. “We all knew the safest place to be was in the center of God’s call,” said Holley, a sophomore theology major.

On a bus ride one day, Holley shared his faith with two Russian brothers, using a trading pin and his own Bible. “Josh had this pin – a 1992 Jesus pin of the Olympics – that tells the salvation plan through colors,” said Harrison Hughes. “They wanted Josh’s awesome pin. He said, ‘If I’m going to give them this pin, I’m going to share the plan of salvation.’”

Holley had gotten the pin from someone he had met the day before.

As he talked with the brothers with the help of the translator, Holley offered them his own Bible – a small navy volume he’d had since childhood. Then he handed them a second Bible, and the two Russians were able to read the scriptures in English as the bus made its way up the mountain.

“I was very excited because we had been praying for God to open up opportunities for us to share our faith,” Holley said. “I’ve never (before) seen someone’s face light up with joy as they read the Bible for the first time.”

Dodd, a junior who learned the banjo in two months for the trip, said the band offered friendship first, then the Gospel. He said Protestant Christianity is considered a cult by some Russians, many of whom practice Orthodox Christianity. But when the group communicated that both religions are based in the same scriptures, barriers came down quickly.

The students said the Russian people welcomed them and were eager to take photos with band members. Generally, they said, Americans are considered “rock stars.” In another endearing gesture, locals sometimes reached out with small Russian flags to touch the group’s American flags.

“They were excited to have us there,” said Hughes, the professor, who had traveled to Russia before. “I think the Olympic Games softened them.”

Visit umobilemagazine.com for a video recap of the Dixieland band in Sochi.

About the Author

Carol McPhail