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March 8, 2010 issue

Virginia quartet led move into radio

Book remembers Crusader musical journey 60 years ago

By Rachel Bowman Harrisonburg Daily News-Record

HARRISONBURG, Va. — In the fall of 1950, four young men from Eastern Mennonite College were embarking on a mission.

The Crusaders Quartet at their last public program in 2007: Aaron King, Eugene Souder, Paul Swarr and Roy Kreider. — Photo provided by Eugene Souder

The Crusaders Quartet at their last public program in 2007: Aaron King, Eugene Souder, Paul Swarr and Roy Kreider. — Photo provided by Eugene Souder

Problem was, the endeavor had not been embraced by the leadership of the Mennonite Church. But the four men, members of the Crusader Men’s Quartet, trusted in God, as they had since they joined together to spread the gospel three years before.

Roy H. Kreider tells the story of the genesis of the radio show The Mennonite Hour and other stories in a booklet he wrote, He Keeps Me Singing: Journeying with the Crusader Men’s Quartet, 1947-1951.

Kreider, 85, of Broadway and his wife, Florence, are enjoying retirement after spending more than 30 years in Israel through Mennonite Board of Missions. The parents of three children, with 11 grandchildren, the Kreiders also served a ministry counseling at Cornerstone Mennonite Fellowship in Broadway. But Kreider doesn’t consider himself a high-powered, charismatic sort.

“I had no ambition, no high vision,” he said. “I felt [I] was in the right place at the right time and followed where God led.”

Being in the right place at the right time, following God’s plans, is what He Keeps Me Singing is all about. Kreider met Eugene Souder, now 82, of Grottoes, along with Paul Swarr and Aaron King, both of Harrisonburg, as freshmen at Eastern Mennonite College (now University). But conditions were already in place that prepared Kreider and his compatriots for the four years ahead. All had been involved in some aspect of church leadership in their home congregations, especially the music ministry.

“Singing was a large part of our growing up years,“ Kreider said.

So it just made sense that Kreider, Souder, Swarr and King should meet up. At that time, the Mennonite Church seemed receptive to innovative ways to spread the gospel, Kreider said.

Students were ready: Having assumed leadership roles in their home churches, students were mature and prayerful, willing to go where God led and work together to meet the needs they saw before them, Kreider said.

In this case, he said, all four men had prayed to meet others who desired to blend their voices and spirits in common mission, and the quartet came together soon after they arrived at EMC.

Once together, Kreider said the men followed a practice that was to play out throughout their entire lives: They would open each practice with prayer, that opportunities would arise for them to sing, that they’d be stretched and strengthened in their spiritual lives, that the four of them would be bonded in ministry and personal lives.

And God acted, opening abundant and unexpected doors, Krei­der said. He Keeps Me Sing­ing tells of the tent meetings, church plantings and the travel they did.

More important, Kreider writes about the people: the people from the coves and hollers of Kentucky who were poor, yet gave graciously and received the gospel; the folks from Hannibal, Mo., and Richmond who responded to their music and personal testimonies; and the people who flocked eagerly to street meetings in New York City.

“No classes were preparing us for that,” Kreider said.

Nor did EMC have a class to prepare them to stretch their ministry into radio. The Crusader Men’s Quartet had been asked to sing for radio programs in the summer of 1950 as they did street missions in New York City. Radio seemed like a creative way to share the gospel with more people, the four reasoned. Was this yet another opportunity from God? So they prayed and decided to ask for free airtime on Harrisonburg radio station WSVA, Souder said.

In September 1950, WSVA offered 15 minutes of free airtime once a week to the group, which they used to present songs and personal testimony. Norman Derstine served as announcer and program director, and the program seemed well received by listeners, Souder said.

At the same time, though, the men knew Virginia Mennonite Conference frowned on radio ministry.

Listeners were asking for the show to expand to half an hour; Mennonite business owners indicated their willingness to sponsor the show if the conference would signal its approval.

Eventually, in summer 1951, Virginia Conference approved the move to radio. The show that started with 15 minutes of free airtime evolved until it became The Mennonite Hour, which, at its height, was carried on 150 stations and reached the world via shortwave radio.

“I think it was an idea whose time had come,” Souder said. “We were pushing, but pushing gent­ly.”

It was the perfect vehicle for spreading the Word of God, and the quartet felt the Lord directing each step of the way, he said. Souder, who wrote an appendix for He Keeps Me Singing, said he feels “unusually blessed” to have been part of a vital ministry.

“We weren’t getting much studying done, because the mission took up so much time,” he said.

In 1951, the men graduated from EMC and, by late summer, the Crusader Men’s Quartet ended. They each left with their wives for new mission fields. Aaron and Betty King went to Cuba. Paul and Bertha Swarr and the Kreiders all served in Israel. Souder, with his wife, Alice, went on to serve with The Mennonite Hour and later became a pastor.

But they still recall the prayer-based bond they shared, and the four men remain close.

The lessons Kreider learned traveling with the Crusader Men’s Quartet have served him all his life, including the beauty and effectiveness of “mutual dependence” on others, he said.

“When people get together and share, new insights and answers will come,” Kreider said. “There is a richness that transcends denominations.”

He Keeps Me Singing is available with a CD of 11 songs reproduced from six 78 rpm records recorded by the Crusader Men’s Quartet in 1949 and 1951.

It can be ordered by sending $10 plus $3 for postage and handling to Eugene K. Souder, 13241 Port Republic Road, Grottoes, VA 24441.

Article republished with permission from the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record.

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