My wife Deb & I just returned from an overseas music mission trip that lasted from May 23rd to June 8th, 2019. It was a tiring, adventure-filled, rewarding trip that we loved being a part of. I wanted to capture some of it while it’s still fresh in my mind. You can see photos and videos from the trip in my photo album on Facebook. I chose the picture above for this post because it embodies the whole trip to me. This was a woman that we met after our first concert in Budapest. We didn’t get her name so we remember her as the “squishy lady” because she kept giving us these big squishy hugs and smiling at us and was so joyful. We each barely spoke the other’s language, but the music connected us. And that was the point of the whole trip.
An Overview by the Numbers
I added it up and over 17 days we logged over 11,000 miles of travel. Not just on our nine airplane flights, but also by tour bus, ferry, car, tram, riverboat, underground train, Uber, and on foot. We stayed in three different hotels and a cabin. During that time we played 14 concerts with a total of 26 other musicians in two different countries; first in Hungary and then in Norway. We played big-band jazz standards, modern worship, blues, and some of our original music. We shared the love and hope of Jesus, shared testimonies, exchanged countless hugs and handshakes and smiles, and broke bread with many locals. While in Hungary, we donated a number of our CDs, an electric guitar, two guitar stands, and two music stands. In Norway, we gave away some of our CDs and Deb’s jewelry, and we also “sold” some for a donation of any amount to help offset the cost of the trip. And we owe 1,000 thank yous to the many people who made this trip possible including those who contributed financially, those who prayed for us, and those who contributed logistically on the ground in Hungary and Norway.
Part I: Budapest, Hungary
The Budapest portion of our trip was sponsored by Global Missions Project. We went there with the Metro Big Band, a 19-piece jazz big band made up of musicians from the USA, including Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona. We had four trumpets, four trombones, four saxes, a drummer, percussionist, bass player, keyboardist, guitarist, and Deb on vocals. These were some outstanding musicians! We were led by conductor Camp Kirkland.
The day we arrived we all had dinner and then did a quick rehearsal. And that was it, we were off to the races. Over the following week, we got to know one another pretty well, sharing a lot of experiences, meals, and bus rides. Deb & I were rookies at this kind of mission trip and the rest of the band could not have been more encouraging and supportive. We made some great new friends along the way.
We all stayed at the same hotel during our entire time in Budapest, which really helped to have a “home base” to work from. The local missionaries we worked with, Dan & Rose Smith, were fantastic. Their love for God and for people really set the tone for the whole trip. And they were so organized! Each day they told us when to be at the bus and what to expect that day. Every morning the band would load up on the tour bus and our fearless leader Camp would take roll call. Trumpets? Here. ‘Bones? Here. Saxes? Here. Rhythm section? Here. Diva? Here. Then, on the way to the concerts, Dan would get on the bus loudspeaker and tell us about the city where we were headed, the venue we’d be playing in, the people we would meet, and so on.
We played free concerts at churches, schools, and institutions. The bus would pull up to the place and we would all jump into action. 20+ people unloading gear, hauling it into the venue, and setting it up. Camp would determine how the band should be laid out on the “stage” (saxes over here, rhythm section over there, etc.) while the rest of us would set up our gear. Plus we all chipped in to help set up the PA equipment that we hauled with us to every concert. We would then do a quick line-check rehearsal to get the sound of the room and we’d be ready.
At almost every concert, we were served food either before or after we played. Some places served us amazing meals of authentic homemade Hungarian goulash or stuffed cabbages. Others set up snacks and beverages. No matter what, we could always count on pastries and Fanta. The best part of these meals was the opportunity they gave us to meet and talk with the local people; the church or school staff, the volunteers who had helped organize the concert, the people who had attended the concert, etc.
During the concerts, we performed anywhere from 8 to 16 songs, some instrumental and some with vocals. The music was full of energy. It’s hard not to get into it once the horns start blasting! We played some jazz standards, some original arrangements of hymns and worship songs, and some other fun stuff like Brian Setzer. During the concerts, Camp would share stories and really connect with the audiences. And over the course of the week, Deb began to share more of her testimony as well, talking about the obstacles and difficult times in her life and how Jesus met her and has brought her so much healing and peace. (All made possible by our lovely translator, Eszter Lesták.)
Once the performance was over we would all jump back into action. 20+ people tearing down the gear and loading it back onto the bus. On the days with two concerts, we’d pack up and head off to the next concert. On other days we’d head back to the hotel. The time we spent together on the bus driving to and from concerts—bonding with the other members of the band and seeing so much of Budapest and the Hungarian countryside—was great.
In addition to all that work, Dan & Rose had organized some opportunities for us to get out and see the area. They gave us all 1-week passes to the public transportation system along with maps and suggestions about what to see. At one point Deb wanted to go to a public market she’d heard about and Dan personally led us there via the underground Metro and the Tram so we’d know how to find our way back. They also organized a trip for the whole band to visit the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest one afternoon, which was amazing. And the man who helped get us the musical gear, Peter Barbarics (and his son Peter, Jr.,) organized a dinner on a riverboat on the Danube river for the whole band. We got to see the city of Budapest from the river as the sun went down and the lights came on.
It was a chilly, rainy evening on that riverboat and the river was running fast. We enjoyed a buffet-style dinner with our bandmates in the enclosed cabin downstairs, watching the city go by our windows. Despite the rain and chill, I went up to the top deck several times to enjoy the cool night air and the view. At one point, as I walked up the steps to the deck I was met by the strong odor of diesel fuel. A few others who were already up on the deck were pointing out into the dark water around our boat saying things like. “Is that a life vest?” and “That looks like a deck chair.” We started to hear sirens from both sides of the river and began to see police cars and ambulances pulling up along both shores, their blue and red lights flashing. Then a few minutes later we started seeing small rescue rafts in the river around us. We could hear their small engines churning in the water and see the silhouettes of two men on each raft, sweeping the water with handheld flashlights. This was followed by a larger vessel—what looked to me like a Coast Guard cutter—with a huge floodlight, joining the search.
At the time we had no idea what was going on, but we knew something was wrong, It wasn’t until we returned to our hotel that we began to learn about the accident that ultimately claimed 26 lives on the river that night. While we were chatting and enjoying a meal together, 500 meters away a large hotel vessel had collided with a smaller tour boat (just like ours) full of South Korean tourists. The collision was so violent that it capsized and sunk the small boat in under 60 seconds. There were 33 souls on board and only 7 survivors were found. So sad! The following night at our concert we met a South Korean missionary and were able to talk with her and pray for her as she has to minister to the grieving South Korean community in the area.
Somewhere along the way, Deb caught a respiratory bug. This, combined with a lack of sleep due to all the travel, and a busy schedule led to lots of coughing, a severe reduction of her vocal range, and even the loss of her voice for a while. It became a major, sustained effort for her to keep herself able to sing. She had to get up early enough to steam for 30 minutes in the shower, drink lots of water, avoid caffeine, sleep as often as possible and spend a long time slowly warming up her voice before each concert. She handled it all like a total pro! Through a combination of mental toughness and lots of prayer, she made her way through each concert, one song at a time. And God showed up in a big way, allowing her enough of a voice to sing when we feared there would be nothing there. She was able to keep going and keep connecting with the people she was singing to.
Part II: Norway
Our last big band show was in Budafok on Friday, May 31. On Saturday, June 1 we woke up bright and early for the 3:30 AM ride to the airport where we began our trip to Norway for a concert that night. It was a long day of travel. We flew from Budapest to Munich to Oslo to Bergen, Norway. From there we got a 1-hour ride to Øygarden, which is a beautiful collection islands off the coast of Norway interconnected by 22 bridges. We arrived at our venue that afternoon where we met the Norwegian band that would be backing us. They were super talented musicians and really kind guys.
God showed up again, giving Deb a strong voice despite her persistent cough. This was quite a change for us, going from playing jazz big band music in Budapest one night to playing rock/worship music the next night in Norway. It’s difficult to switch contexts so completely and suddenly, but there’s nothing you can do but lean into it and enjoy the ride. So that night we got to play as part of the Refuel youth conference that was going on and it was fantastic. We got to hear our good friend Asbjørn Handeland preach and we were blessed to make music with a great group of Norwegian musicians, leading a room full of beautiful Norwegian people in singing to and praising the God of us all.
The next morning we took the staggeringly beautiful 4.5-hour trip from Bergen to Stavanger by car and ferry and met up with our daughters Sami and Maggie who had just arrived in Norway from Tennessee. From there we drove another 2+ hours to the cabin we would stay in for a few days, which was loaned to us by an amazing, Godly man we would be working closely with in Norway, Børge Salte.
Monday was a much-needed day off at the cabin. It was the first day of the whole trip when we did not have to perform and/or travel. Finally, we were able to rest and get Deb some cough medicine. By now we were pretty sure Deb’s cough had become bronchitis. The following day we headed to the home of Asbjørn where we had intended to do a small house concert for about 20 people, but Deb’s voice was still rough and we thought it best to save it for the bigger concert the next night. So we ended up doing some group singing, our daughter Maggie stepped in to sing a couple of songs, and another Norwegian friend, Eliert Fredly, helped out as well. Deb shared her testimony with the group and it turned out to be a lovely evening.
The next two nights were concerts in two different cities; Bjerkreim and Bryne. Deb & I performed on acoustic guitars along with my “loop station” for grooves and extra layers of sound. Maggie joined us on stage singing with mom, and Sami manned the “merch table” with our CDs and Deb’s jewelry which we gave away for a donation of any amount. (This was to help offset the cost of the tour because, dang, Norway is expensive!). Deb shared her testimony again, as did Børge. And the combination of the brave vulnerability Deb showed in sharing her story along with the voice that God gave her at each concert led to a lot of great connections with folks. It was a beautiful thing to see.
At our concert in Bjerkriem Norway we met a woman named Inger Solberg who is married to Sven Solberg and lives on the Solberg sheep farm, which we learned is where every Solberg family from this part of Norway came from. She invited us to come up to the mountain and see the farm, so the Tennessee Solbergs drove up to meet the West Norway Solbergs. And wouldn’t you know it, Sven Solberg is a big country music fan who has long had a dream to visit Nashville one day with his son. I told him if he can make it Nashville, he’s got a place to stay.
Now that we’re home it all seems to have gone by in a flash. It’s certainly good to be back in the USA with all our comforts and conveniences and reasonable prices. It turns out that you can’t get a nighttime cough medicine like NyQuil in Norway without a prescription from a doctor. And be prepared to pay over $120 to fill up your gas tank!
But I already miss the adventure: connecting with new people, learning new languages, eating new foods, visiting new cities, sharing hope and laughter through music and God. What a blessing. I’m so grateful I had the chance to be part of it. And I have a feeling this isn’t the end of the road for us. Just a temporary stop at home to rest until God tells us where He wants us to go next.