The 1945 choir trip became a legend, for four reasons.
- It was in the time of World War II, in April, with battles raging in Europe and on Pacific Islands.
- The choir tour went from Fergus Falls to New York City----and back again, covering 4,000 miles.
- The singers sang in 28 concerts in 22 days.
- They traveled in the school’s prone-to-break-down, yet “faithful,” bus.
All in all, it was an unforgettable time for Choir-Director William Windahl and his 31 singers. Windahl, classically-educated at the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis and a music instructor at Lutheran Brethren Schools since 1932, had received an invitation from the Atlantic District of Lutheran Brethren churches, and after “much prayer and contemplation,” he said, “yes,” to venturing so far away.
The decision was complicated, because gas was rationed and tires were also rationed during wartime. According to Windahl’s daughter, Joyce (Windahl) Aune, the Lutheran Brethren School’s teachers had to save up numerous gasoline coupons in order to fuel-up the bus. “They also had accumulated as many ration coupons for tires as they could before they left,” Joyce recalled, and “of course those were for used tires-- -no one could buy new ones.”
The bus chugged along well, at first, but slowly, due to the nationwide 35-mile- per-hour speed limit, carrying the choir all the way east to Brooklyn, N.Y. As the choir- bus approached the 59 th Street Church, “a throng of young people lined the street for almost half a block . . . to greet the traveling troupe,” for a Sunday night concert, attended by 1,100 people. The choir enjoyed four days in the “Big Apple,” visiting Radio City Music Hall and zooming to the “top of the Empire State Building,” (the tallest building in the world in that era).
The little school bus took them further afield, to East Hartland, Connecticut, and to the church on Staten Island, where the choir sang the “Bible School Song,” an original tune written by Choir-Director Windahl.
As the “Lutheran Bible School bus from Fergus Falls” traveled from “town to town,” reported Choir-President Paul Blikstad, many people “scratch[ed] their heads . . . in amazement, wondering how such a bus got this far out East.”
The wheels on the bus had gone ‘round and ‘round pretty well. Ominously, however, the wartime tires, with ever-thinning treads and vulnerable inner-tubes, became “tired tires.”
The tires eventually gave out. Shockingly, the bus experienced “twelve blowouts and four flat tires,” said Blikstad, “two of the blowouts came on the way east, while ten of them were on the way home. Four blowouts in one day in Ohio prevented the choir from keeping their engagements in . . . Findlay, Ohio, and in Ottawa, Illinois.” Choir- Manager (and part-time bus-driver and full-time seminarian) Omar Gjerness had heard the pitiless hiss of the flat tires and had felt the lurch of the blowouts, and had patiently patched the tires and tubes together as best he could. But the worst incident occurred when “one of the dual tires . . . on the rear wheels,” blew out and could not be immediately fixed---forcing the choir to travel “all night at 15 miles per hour” to the next concert in Iowa, limping along with one tire completely gone.
Nonetheless, Windahl and his choir persevered. The school-bus made it to Minneapolis, where the choir performed at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, and then sang before a crowd of over 8,000 people in the Municipal Auditorium at the “First Anniversary Rally” of the Youth for Christ crusade, broadcast over KSTP radio.
At long last, after an April 30th concert in Osakis, Minnesota, the choir-bus made it home, pulling into Fergus Falls. Predictably, in the last mile, in the last stretch of pavement on Vernon Avenue, right near the public library, another bus tire blew out. All the choir members, recalled Joyce (Windahl) Aune, “walked the last few blocks to Hillcrest!”
The 1945 springtime choir trip-----with its thousands of miles----and thousands of melodic notes----turned into thousands of vivid memories for those 32 singers that April, near the ending-point of World War II.
Revival often begins in dim light, where the spiritually hungry are on their knees in stillness. In this stillness prayers for others shift, and an outward call for revival turns inward. In the quiet murmurs of passionate hearts the power of prayer trumpets. Prayers like these have 110-year-old roots at Hillcrest, eventually turning into an event monikered Prayer Day. What began in the winter of 1907 is continuing today.
R.S. Gjerde was a confident student. His jet black hair was slicked back against his scalp, his comb and the balm that aided this hairstyle sat on his dresser in his dorm room. Light danced on the balm tin, causing reflections to fight shadows on the dorm walls in the candle-lit prayer meeting. Gjerde met with four young men, some kneeling beside a trunk that brought clothes and favorite trinkets to Lutheran Brethren School, others huddled over chairs and the dorm bed. This was the winter of 1907, and students were praying for revival.
The sporadic clanking of the radiator heating their room was a metronome of prayer for a young man referred to as Setterlund. Known as “the Swede” to many students, he was one of a handful of students who hadn’t bought into a Biblical perspective at the Bible School yet, and the students were aggressively bringing their friend to the throne room of Christ. Gjerde wrote of the incident some sixty years after the day in a Lutheran Brethren periodical. “‘Fire’ fell! All of us started to pray again, not for the unsaved one, but for ourselves - and all at one time! The room filled with the presence of God. And in His presence we saw ourselves unclean.” Tears filled their eyes as the group of young men began a string of repentance prayers that evening. Waking the next morning, the young men saw revival fire spread through the entire student body. Students were going to bed sure of physical illness, only to find in prayer that they suffered instead from spiritual ailments.
The revival spread into the classroom, where instructor E.T. Aasheim was called to deeper conviction in his Bible class, showing that revival fire knows no barriers of age or life experience. Classes were canceled as staff and students met in classrooms for prayer, confession, and times of praise. Some staff found themselves bedridden. Pastor K.O. Lundeberg, a founder of the school, was visited by Principal E.M. Broen at Lundeberg’s bedside as he was physically weak from his spiritual conviction. Broen read promises from God’s word to his spiritually ailing cohort. Lundeberg is noted to have replied in one instance, “This I know by heart, in Norwegian, in English, and in Greek. But it is not for me.” The revival fire refined Lundeberg, who reportedly saw the redemption in Christ become real to him once again before returning to his post in leading the schools.
It’s in this shadow that students have continued to meet at Lutheran Brethren Schools in an annual prayer day. Hillcrest has humbly carried on this tradition, meeting nearly twice every year for a time of refocus through prayer and confession. Each year the prayer day looks different, but they all hold a tying root back to that first prayer day in 1907.
At Hillcrest’s fall Prayer Day, held November 1, a staff member huddled close with her group of students in prayer. From a distance, the group looked like many that day, students simply crowding together, murmuring prayers for the nation, the community, the church, and their school. However, when this group closed their prayer time before a five minute break, the leader wiped tears from her eyes. Passersby likely thought little of it until the entire group began wiping tears in a uniform fashion. The group of students with tear-filled eyes sniffled as they formed a huddle in the middle of their circle of chairs, creating a group hug that closed their time in prayer. The staff member quietly walked to a group of colleagues and shared how the heart of her group was pricked for a handful of Norwegian students who are rejecting Christ. The prayers caused the group to cry, their hearts bleeding as their eyes poured tears and their mouths besought the Lord to intervene in the lives of their friends.
During the most recent two-day prayer day Hillcrest students gathered in much the same way they have for over one hundred years. Small groups dotted the floor of the gym where heads were bowed in prayer. A study on prayer guided students and volunteer leaders to consider the ways the Lord is speaking to them as they thumbed in their Bibles to passages that set their hearts and minds on things of the Lord. In one group the leader asked participants to complete a survey, asking them to share thoughts, questions, and insights they had on salvation, their relationship with the Lord, and their devotional practices. The action sparked conversation on real world issues the group is facing, and provided a channel for follow-up for the small group leader in the weeks to come.
This simple story from our recent prayer day pulls a veil for us to see that the original work the Lord started with Lutheran Brethren Schools is continuing in a powerful way at Hillcrest Academy.