My friend Don Orr has never drunk a full cup of coffee. He took a sip as a young man and immediately spit it out. “That’s the only taste I ever wanted.” I said, “Don, you were a missionary for 34 years among the beautiful coffee plantations you just described and you never tasted the great Colombian coffee?” He replied, “Somebody else might think it’s great – not me.”
You would think that a man who flew 187 combat missions in the South Pacific Theater in WWII would have been an avid coffee drinker. (The only other pilot that would have more missions in that arena had 189.) But, I suppose a man without caffeine would possibly have nerves of steel for that work.
Attending Ouachita University and Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Don earned a Master’s degree in education and one in music, then many years later added a third in Spanish, during one of their furloughs.
While at seminary, a missionary from Chile spoke in chapel and that God burdened Don’s heart to go to South America as a missionary. That day, Violet, Don’s wife was in the same chapel service and felt the same tug of God on her heart. They were not sitting together because of class schedules, but Vi thought, “What if Don doesn’t feel the same? I can’t go without him.” Don was pondering the exact same thoughts about her.
Both of them felt the call on their hearts so strong they each decided to go forward at the altar call. They would just have to work this out later. Well, they met in the aisle, each with the same fresh vision of where God desired their marriage to go – 34 years of Christian missionary service in Colombia.
By 1951, Don and his wife, Violet, were in Spanish school for the next year in San Jose, Costa Rica and then permanently on assignment in Colombia as the first music missionaries ever appointed. No music missionaries had ever been appointed by the Southern Baptist Mission Board. He still remembers the tongue twister taught in the language school that helped them roll the R’s properly. Rapido corren los carros del ferrocarril. (Railroad cars run rapidly).
Upon arrival in Cali, Colombia, the Orrs began teaching music 4-5 hours per day. Vi taught the ladies voice lessons as well as piano and drama. Don taught music theory and voice to the men. These men would become pastors in churches where there were no funds or trained people to lead the worship music. They would be doing the ministry of leading music as well as preaching.
Don says he was continually culling out the monotone voices. “The ones that could hear the pitch would sing with ‘gusto’,” Don said. But there were those that just could not hear the difference between music pitches. He attributes this to the diet in that country. He believes they were malnourished because they ate almost as much rice in their daily diet as the Chinese, and this would affect their hearing. These monotones would eventually become pastors, but would have to rely on others for music in their worship services.
But the wonderful people of Colombia loved music and were excited to have the formal training they had never had. Don began working with congregations and choirs in new churches, teaching and encouraging in worship music.
There was much translation to be done. Some of the songs were in Spanish, but many were not. So it was necessary to translate these to be taught and used in worship services and the classroom. This was Violet’s job and she was great at it.
Don taught classes 6 hours each day at the seminary in music theory, choral conducting and congregational song leading and religious education. He said, “We wanted to prepare young men and women to have effective and efficient worship in their church services.”
Most students would come from the Catholic Church background where they never had sung nor been encouraged to sing the music of the Church. Don said, “We had to start from scratch because these folks had never had any music training.” Now they were training for the ministry and would become music directors in their churches.
Though they would experience some protests and demonstrations by the Catholic Church and some rock throwing events during the worship services, Don and Vi did not feel they were ever in physical danger. Their children were ostracized from the locals and the priests told the villagers, “They worship foreign devils and you will have to do penance if you associate with them.”
Being accepted by the locals was difficult because of opposition from the Catholic priests. A local priest would mention them by name and tell the people that they should avoid these missionaries. A few people were so proud of their Colombian heritage that if anyone accepted Christ they were cut off, ostracized from the family and village.
It is my great privilege to know Don Orr and share in his wonderful missionary career this way and hear him speak of the blessings of God on their lives and family. As we visited, the zeal for the work in Colombia was still in his eyes. He is in Texas now, but his heart remains in Colombia with those people he dearly loves.