Choir reunites to sing director’s praises
One December 2012 night, Duane Arndt dreamed about a reunion honouring choir director Jake Willms and his wife Rita. After a Facebook post about Arndt’s dream received dozens of response in the first 24 hours, he called Jake’s oldest daughter Lori Willms Neufeld, and a reunion committee was formed. Arndt’s somnolent reverie galvanized Reach Out/Celebration Choir alumni across the country to offer tribute to man who changed the course of many lives one song at a time.
The choir started with Kitchener MB (KMB) youth leader Ron Ratzlaff singing with the teens. When his studies took him elsewhere, Jake consented to direct a choir in 1975, arranging regular Sunday afternoon rehearsals with youth member David Dyck as accompanist. Theme song “I’m Reaching Out” lent the choir its name until 1984 when it was changed to Celebration Choir.
A 1987 MB Herald report described Jake as a man with “boundless energy.” But it takes more than energy to strike a chord with teenagers that resonates almost 25 years later. “Choir songs ring in my ears like I sang them yesterday,” says Arndt. “The words refresh my spirit and encourage me.”
Arndt, who at 14 joined the choir in its twilight years, isn’t the only adult who fondly remembers Jake from choir days.
“Jake entered personal moments with a depth of care and character that still impact me today,” says Ellen (Krahn) Ibele, a member of the organizing team for the June reunion at KMB. “The memory of his kindness during a time of deepest grief is a balm. Jake’s example has motivated me to step from my comfort zone and move toward others who are experiencing grief and troubles.”
Through letters, memory book contributions, and event participation, many voices rose to offer a public thank you to Jake and Rita: Jake listened well, offered words of wisdom, and – maybe most importantly – modelled Christ’s unconditional acceptance and love.
“There are few people who have impacted my life as significantly as Jake Willms,” says Doris Balcarras who joined the choir in 1975. “He listened, asked challenging questions, and presented a different perspective. Then, he let me make my own decisions. No matter what choice I made, he supported and encouraged me. Jake always directed me to seek God’s will in my life challenges.”
Cathie Kearsley, who participated in the choir from 1984–89, also finds herself recalling conversations with Jake. “In my career, I hear myself repeating the same ‘two-minute sermons’ that Jake provided in our rehearsals. Jake and Rita set the stage for me as a teenager to learn about worship and service by modelling sacrificial service.”
Jake and Rita’s own daughters also sang in the choir. Their adulthood is seasoned with fond choir memories and lyrics that comfort and encourage them. “Performing with the choir was a spiritually uplifting worship experience for me,” says Willms Neufeld. “When I read certain Bible verses, I hear the song melodies in my mind.”
Middle daughter Lisa Willms says, “The songs we sang became an integral part of my life. When I hear a choir song,…all the words, melodies, and harmonies come back. These songs bring me joy and comfort and strengthen my faith.”
Lynn Willms, the youngest in the family, always admired her dad for his approach to the choir. “If you wanted to sing, you could join,” she says. “There was no audition, no fee, no requirement other than a willingness to sing. Choir was a place to be accepted and loved, which made it easy to sing of the acceptance and love that God gives us.”
Over the 15 years the choir sang together, they performed nearly 200 times, in 65 different churches. They travelled by bus as far away as Quebec; Banff, Alta. (for the national youth convention); Winkler, and Winnipeg (where they performed at the Mennonite World Conference assembly in 1990).
Jake maintained a journal during his choir days. The first entry, dated Friday, Jan. 31, 1975, reads, “Our first Y.P. singing group practice.” The first Sunday service performance at KMB, Mar. 9, 1975, “really went well.”
“God blessed our ministry in many ways, and I was personally thankful for the many years of safe travel,” he wrote to Arndt in the lead-up to the tribute event.
KMB hosted the reunion June 21–23, 2013. The weekend included choir rehearsals, a social for choir members and spouses, celebration of Jake Willms’ birthday, and a KMB concert featuring nearly 70 reunited choir members, three conductors (Nancy [Hiebert] Dyck, Peter Burkard and Paul Fehderau), and three pianists. For one song, Phil Hiebert, Reach Out drummer for five years, animated the drumkit for the first time in 25 years.
Reach Out/Celebration Choir alumni travelled from as far as B.C. to participate. Others sent letters containing memories and greetings. From the 130 contact names collected by the choir committee, 100 people RSVPed for some component of the celebration.
—Stacey Weeks, Ontario correspondent
Choir members’ reflections:
“I have never forgotten the day Jake came to our house, after learning of [my sister’s fatal car accident], and very circumspectly, and with great deference asked if we would consider having the Reach Out choir possibly sing at her funeral, and would we also mind if they formed an honour guard for her. I still don’t really have the words to express just how deeply we were touched by his visit and suggestions – it was a profound moment for us. We were utterly blown away that he would want to do this for us. At the time, I had no idea what an honour guard was…; didn’t until he made the announcement at the funeral; and then invited not just the choir members, but all the young people there to join in, which they did. Later, the choir sang several selections at the reception as well. Rita’s funeral was a huge affair, because due, to the circumstances of her death, dignitaries from B.C. and the USA came as well as our own personal friends and family. But the most touching moments for me (and for my family) were Jake’s visit, the honour guard and choir singing he planned and orchestrated. In the midst of our huge, tragic loss, that memory has continued to stand out quite clearly and been such a balm to a memory of a time of deepest grief.”—Ellen (Krahn) Ibele
“Jake taught us to serve with joy and ‘gusto,’ bring our best to each performance and celebrate in our worship. [The choir] was more than a way to keep us out of trouble; they pointed us into a meaningful direction of worship and service to the glory of God.”—Cathie Kearsley
“Jake was never preachy, but made no apology for his faith. He chose songs that were fun yet meaningful. He often would tell us about the background of the song and the significant stories behind it. He shared personal stories and chose to be vulnerable in many ways, allowing us to see him as a real person with imperfections and questions about life and faith. On reflection, I realize the significant sacrifice Jake and Rita made for us. Jake and Rita had three girls of their own. It is amazing that he actually chose to spend weekends with more teenagers. I did not fully appreciate the gravity of the sacrifice until many years later, when I had my own children and realized how much work and time it takes to raise a family. I also have a deep understanding and appreciation for the sacrifice Rita made behind the scenes. She spent every Sunday afternoon alone, helped Jake with the plans for our trips, and I am sure many, many other things to make it possible for Jake to spend so much time with us. She always had a smiling face, a wonderful laugh and a genuine joy that we were having so much fun.”—Doris Balcarras (Lugowski)
A Kitchener Mennonite Brethren Church Archives report on the Reach Out/Celebration Choir
– based on an interview with Jake Willms, January, 2012
It was in the mid 1970s. Youth work in the church was bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. Ron Ratzlaff was a youth sponsor at the time and just on a whim began to sing with the youth. This became a favourite activity for them. This set the stage for the future youth choir later on. Ron went on to further his studies. A long list of dedicated youth sponsors stepped in and gave their time and energy to the young people of KMB. Jake and Rita Willms were among them.
Jake, of course, enjoyed singing and music himself, and in his interactions with the young people, he recognized their desire to form a more formal singing group. They wanted him to be the director. Jake consented to direct them, and told them “as long as you come, I’ll come.” This was also youth work, but separate from the other church sponsored youth activities which still continued. The young people decided that the practices should take place on Sunday afternoons. David Dyck, an accomplished young pianist from within the group, became the choir’s accompanist. And so the KMB youth choir was born in 1975.
The choir enjoyed such popularity that it became the place to be on a Sunday afternoon. It was so much fun that they invited their school friends to come too. Many different churches were represented and some came who had never been in a church before. It was a good, safe place for the girls to meet guys and for the guys to check out the girls. Children at KMB who were not old enough yet to join the choir could hardly wait for the day to arrive when they, too, could be a part of it. It just seemed like so much fun. There are quite a few couples today who met each other due to the youth choir.
They chose as their theme song “I’m Reaching Out,” and it was from this song that the choir’s name “The Reach Out Choir” was taken. The name was later ‘modernized’ to be the “Celebration Choir” in 1984. Jake chose all the songs and music. He and Rita listened to countless demo records that publishers sent them, from which he chose the repertoire for the choir. He was always on the lookout for appropriate songs for his choir. Pianists were very important. There were always those from within the choir that could step in when needed. After David Dyck left, Lillian Penner, Laurie Funk, and Lisa Trautrim stepped in to play the piano.
The singing was also often enhanced with bass guitars and drums played by various choir members. These modern additions would at that time have been frowned upon by some in the congregation. However, since the parents and grandparents were so grateful that their youth were in such a wholesome activity that they so obviously enjoyed, these were overlooked. The choir became a positive, enjoyable experience for youth and parents alike.
The choir prepared and presented programs in many local churches. Their youthful joy which shone through their inspirational singing was always received with great enthusiasm. They also had the privilege of singing further aﬁeld. They sang at the World Conference in Winnipeg, and at two youth conferences held at Banff, Alta. The choir was also invited to sing at various churches in Quebec. One of the choir members, Jim Somerville, who spoke a ﬂuent French, facilitated the narrative and translation there. Jake remembers, “There were lots of bus trips. And you know, they sang their hearts out at the programs, but then they sang all the way home as well!”
The choir celebrated 10 years of singing with a special program at KMB on March 24, 1985. By the time five more years had passed by, Jake felt the winds of change. It was in the 1980s and by now, a new style of music was making its presence known among the youth. Rock bands, choruses, informality, a turning away from the traditional genre. Jake became aware of cooling loyalties. After 15 years, he felt it was time to bring the Reach Out/Celebration Choir era to a close. He thought it better to stop on a strong high, rather than wait for an inevitable gradual demise.
Jake and the Celebration Choir presented a final, 15-year anniversary concert at KMB on May 13, 1990. As always, the singing of the young people exuded inspiration, joy, and enthusiasm which pulsated throughout the packed congregation. But, it was tinged with some sadness as all endings are. However, an overwhelming sense of gratefulness remained in the hearts of everyone, singers and parents alike. Gratefulness to God for these 15 years that had influenced and nurtured such a large group of young people, gratefulness to Jake for his faithful leadership and tireless efforts, and to his wife Rita as well, who was willing to spend her Sunday afternoons by herself. The only ones who were not so grateful were the anxiously waiting young people who had finally reached the age to be able to join the Celebration Choir. But the time to sing in the Celebration Choir had come to an end. As the preacher says in Ecclesiastes 3:1, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
—written by Nancy Fehderau for the KMB Archives
Watch an original tribute video recorded by a choir member’s daughter here.
Photos courtesy Ellen Krahn Ibele and Kitty Ibele.
Photos and event information added June 24, 2013.