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First IMB music missionaries persevered by holding to the call

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–As the missionary spoke about Colombia, Violet knew God was calling her to go to the South American country, but she didn’t know how she could break the news to her newlywed husband.
“I can’t go forward. I can’t go off and leave Don,” she told herself. But the Holy Spirit insisted. “I couldn’t keep from going out in the aisle. It was just like the Holy Spirit took me and led me down the aisle,” she said.
Violet was not alone in the aisle. Her husband, who had come to the service separately, was there too.
“We met at the aisle,” she remembered fondly.
On April 19, 1951, Donald and Violet Orr became the first music missionaries appointed by the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.
The Orrs, both graduates of the church music program at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, returned to the school during the seminary’s annual Church Music Workshop Feb. 15-19.
In the 1940s, Violet had just graduated from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and was considering an opportunity to tour with a San Francisco opera company.
Her father, a Baptist minister, discouraged her from doing that.
“He helped me see that was not the best thing for me. About that time, the Lord called me into special service in music,” she recalled.
She had heard about Southwestern and took a bus to Fort Worth “with about $30 in my pocket … without a job, without anything.”
After enrolling, she decided to audition with the Southwestern Singers, the seminary’s a cappella choir. When she arrived at Cowden Hall, the seminary’s music building, for the audition, she saw Donald for the first time.
“I saw him stand up in his Air Force uniform,” she recalled with a smile. “He had just come back from the war. He became my hero.
“Little by little, we got acquainted,” she said. Soon after they were married.
The day they answered God’s call to missions, they were not able to sit together during the seminary’s chapel service because they had come from different classes. The speaker was a missionary to Colombia.
“He said, ‘We need a couple trained in church music to come and teach our people how to use music, how to worship God through music and how to reach people through music,'” Donald recounted.
Donald began remembering all of the narrow escapes from death he had had as a fighter pilot during World War II.
“All of the sudden,” he said, “the Lord spoke to me and said, ‘That is what I saved you for.'”
Donald said he didn’t hear any more of the presentation as he “discussed” the matter with the Lord.
“I’ve never thought about being a missionary,” he remembered thinking to himself, as questions raced through his head. “I’ve never even spoken to my wife about this. What would she say?”
Violet was deep in her own thoughts.
“I was hanging on to the seat in front of me,” she said. “When I was 13 years old, I had actually surrendered to be a missionary. When my music became the greatest part of my life, I did not see how I could become a missionary because I had never heard of a music missionary and I knew God wanted me to use my music.”
What began as a lonely walk down the aisle, suddenly changed as they saw each other. The way God called them independently to minister together was something the Orrs learned to hang on to during tough times on the mission field.
“When it got tough overseas and we had three revolutions that we went through and many, many narrow escapes, and other different difficulties, it was always comforting knowing that God brought us both in his own way to surrender to missions,” Violet said.
She recalled people stoning her and her husband and churches being burned.
“There was a lot of persecution,” she said. “They looked down upon Baptists and had nothing to do with them.”
Relying on God and trusting his call, the Orrs persevered and broke new ground in Colombia. Their music was a key that God used to open doors that were locked to other evangelicals who were not accepted by the people.
“My adult choir was invited to put on a cantata in a Catholic church,” Donald said. “This was unheard of. But we accepted and went. A few weeks later, another Catholic priest asked if we could come and sing in his church.”
Since the adult choir couldn’t make it, Donald brought his youth choir. The priest was “overwhelmed” by the performance.
As a result, another Catholic priest asked if the youth choir would like to sing on a radio program.
“Evangelicals had never been allowed to use the radio at that time. They could not even buy time,” Donald said.
The priest was so impressed with the youth choir that he asked them to pray and share testimonies.
“We had been invited there for 15 minutes,” Donald said. “We ended up being there for six hours. He asked us to come back the next day.”
After the choir finished singing the next day, the priest asked for more so the choir sang part of the Easter cantata they were to sing the next evening at their church. The priest asked if he could see the full performance the next day.
With his Catholic robes on, he came to the First Baptist Church in Cali, Donald said.
After returning the next night to hear the adult Easter cantata, the priest asked to speak to the pastor and his wife and the Orrs.
“He confided in us that he had accepted the Lord as his Savior that day,” Donald said.
Through the “unheard of” relationship between the Baptists and Catholics, God allowed the Orrs to work directly with more Catholics.
“The Catholics began to realize that people needed to know the Bible,” Violet said. “They wanted to be working with us in a Bible-impact campaign. We were able to go into the Catholic convent with the nuns to teach the Bible.”
The faithfulness of God in their ministry still amazes the Orrs.
“We weren’t sure when we went if we were going to be able to stay. We went on faith and took our suitcases,” Violet said, with tears in her eyes. “We said if God wants us to stay here, he will keep us here. And he did.”
Once there, they did not have any furniture or dishes, but, Violet said, “God provided and kept us there and provided wonderfully for us.
“It goes to show that when you follow God’s will and you know what God is leading you to do, he is going to take care of you,” she said.
The Orrs retired from the International Mission Board Jan. 1, 1985, and now reside in Midland, Texas.

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  • Robyn Little