What's a Missionary to Do?
THE CASE OF GERRY DYCK
Gerald P Dyck was a missionary sent to Thailand by the United Presbyterian Church (USA) at the invitation of the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT) from 1967 to 1971. Gerry’s assignment was to assist in the Church Music Department of the Thailand Theological Seminary. It was the smallest department of the seminary, and one with the least opportunity to make an impact on the future of the Protestant enterprise in Thailand. In theory, the church music department was to train organists and choir directors for local churches. After a hundred years in Northern Thailand the mostly Presbyterian heritage churches had hardly any musicians who could play a piano and the best that could be said for choral music was that it was traditional hymns sung enthusiastically. Gerry’s job was to teach classes and give personal lessons. This had to be dispiriting with students of so little talent, but Gerry saw potential. It was the age of guitars. That was the future of church music, according to the Moderator of the CCT. Gerry saw a completely different possibility, indigenous music. The foundation for this was modest in the church. Missionaries in Lampang had developed a hand-full of hymns using Thai melodies which were the most popular hymns in the Thai Hymnal. But Thai instruments were not used to accompany the hymns. Gerry began with that. It was an incendiary move. Conservative backlash against using pagan music was instantaneous. A lesser person would have desisted and probably apologized. Gerry persisted, working with those who were not offended, finding local musicians here and there who agreed. The results, 50 years later, are that indigenous instruments providing music in church services of worship is no longer controversial. That is not to say that the church adopted Thai cultural forms, or that new hymns have been written with Thai melodies. They have not. On the other hand, the little Church Music Department became the basis for Payap University’s College of Music, one of the most successful departments in the university, and one that has vastly improved musical quality and appreciation nationally. This, ironically, has provided musicians for the church whereas recruiting them untrained and training them to be church musicians did not.
I take it from this, that one role an ex-pat missionary can have is experimenter. “Let’s just try it and see.” In this case the experiment ran against the grain of Christians seeking the maximum distance from local culture. The Christian sub-culture needs to be distinct. Gerry was constantly testing the water with new forms of music education based on Carl Orff and John Cage, while also writing cantatas not unlike ones by Bach and promoting annual performances of Messiah by Handel.
Meanwhile, Gerry used his abundant free time exploring ethnomusicology, a special field of cultural anthropology. This undertaking has been more fully described in another essay: www.kendobson.asia/blog/gerry-dyck. I would like to mention here, however, that Gerry had no mandate to do this work, which turned out to be his most enduring contribution. He was permitted to do this, and eventually given modest support to design a recording studio in the seminary building. But church officials ignored this massive work Gerry was doing almost on his own. To this day, in fact, the church has ignored what Thai cultural preservationists have called the greatest contribution any single individual has made to Northern Thai musical history. Gerry is called “the father-teacher” and borom-ajan (illustrious teacher) by Thai musicologists.
I submit that Gerry Dyck was a model for missionaries, but one not easy to follow. The contributions that many missionaries have brought have often, indeed have generally, been over and beyond the job they were sent here to Thailand to do. In Gerry’s case it was about investigation and preservation of a disappearing musical heritage. Previous missionaries contributed dictionaries, architectural and construction concepts, and cultural studies. Sometimes those were imagined as an evangelical entré, but, as with countless parish priests in England, the church-worker’s hobby sometimes was the more significant. The church and mission organizations often lose something extremely precious by imposing narrow borders on their work. The employee syndrome is less productive than it is assumed to be.
In Gerry’s case, 1970 was a tough year. The Presbyterian Church came to the end of its funds for sustained overseas work. A board representative came to Thailand with a hard choice for the CCT: cut 20% of the mission workforce, or 20% of the subsidies for other work. Gerry was not a favorite son and his work was not adding things of immediate value to church programs, so he and his family were cut along with several other missionaries. It took nearly 4 decades for his most important contribution to be recognized.
Gerry Dyck died Tuesday, July 23, 2019 at his home in Assonet, Massachusetts, USA. His daughter, Kirsten O’Dell, informed us of Gerry’s death with her and her sister Heidi and Gerry’s wife, Helga beside him as he passed away peacefully. He had been in Hospice care for a few days. A memorial service will be held in September.
Gerry will be remembered by those of us in Thailand for his two periods of missionary service here. From 1960 to 1963 he was sent by the Mennonite Central Committee to do “alternative service” (as a conscientious objector to military service) at the Sampantakit Farm, a rural development project of the Church of Christ in Thailand, north of Chiang Rai where he helped with the church and school and developed a deep interest in Northern Thai culture.
From 1967 to 1971 Gerry, by that time married to Edy with twins Ilse and Heidi (Kirsten was born here at McCormick Hospital), returned to Chiang Mai sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, to teach at the Thailand Theological Seminary in the Department of Church Music. During those 5 years Gerry became deeply involved in investigating all aspects of Northern Thai music. He produced hundreds of tape recordings of music played by all sorts of instruments along with photographic records of how the instruments were made. These were archived in Los Angeles and eventually digitized. This trove of information has been pivotal in the preservation of these aspects of Northern Thai culture. The pin pia was rescued from near extinction, for example. His work in the Church Music Department with that of his colleagues, especially Mrs. Carolyn Kingshill, formed the basis for what is now the College of Music of Payap University.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.