The theme of the 110th Founders Day of Silliman University, A Mighty Fortress is our God was perfectly echoed in the recent faith journey of the SU Gratitude & Goodwill Ambassadors (SUGGA), a group of performing artists directed by Dr. Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez who travelled to Alaska for Tipon 2011.
The idea of this unique gift came from the dynamic president of Silliman University Dr. Ben S. Malayang III.
Everyone who attended the Tipon realized it was not just “another expense” to send 26 performing artists all the way to Alaska because their value measures beyond the money actually spent. When it was finally unfolded, it was revealed that Silliman’s “gift” to the alumni in North America was priceless as it became a “gift of faith”.
Even the process of totally approving such gift was stressful for some people behind the leadership as it was clouded with doubts. For one, the short span of time to process their visas became a daunting test, and the inevitable Doubting Thomases began to grow in everyone’s hearts.
It was this skepticism that made the process very painful to Susan who had nothing within her heart but the enlightenment for the value of obedience in the journey of faith.
With her obedience, she was misunderstood. To many, the planned journey was more of pride, and a selfish will, but what many failed to see was the constant communication with God which led them to more difficult challenges.
SUGGA was an intricate group to handle, with old voices that had been with Susan’s tutelage for many years, and with new voices, many of them needing not just voice training but most importantly, a refinement of character and discipline as goodwill ambassadors.
Too much emotions had prevailed as the director had to deal with what seemed like an orchestra of differing emotions within the group — which would painstakingly include some overbearing parents.
And there was more. The Philippine passports of majority of the members had not been processed within the required period which painfully resulted in two members failing to acquire their own passports on time.
Visa processing also seemed ill-timed when the US Embassy had changed its computer system which did not allow for group processing.
It was a miracle though that the care factor in Sanda Fuentes of Orientwinds Travel & Tours led the rest of the group to different schedules for their visa interviews on June 7, 8, and 9. Four of the choir members did not make it during the interview; two had pending petitions from their US-based relatives, and two were found to have inconsistencies in their passports.
But faith persisted, and the group came out of the ordeal (which included being soaked in the heavy rain while queueing for their visas — the same rain which saved the June 8th batch as the Embassy officials decided to give them just one priority number for all, so as to be sheltered from the storm) though not in total jubilation as their hearts where in sympathy for those who failed to get their visas approved.
Finally, they were ready to fly out of the country on June 17.
SUGGA has become a family of survivors who went through a long dark tunnel, together discovering a light of hope beaming through. The final 27 included Susan and Institutional Advancement Officer Jose Mari Jonathan “Jojo” Antonio, head of the delegation.
It was also unimaginable how Macrina Fuentes was able to book them all on the same flight from Manila—Narita—Seattle—Fairbanks even during this peak travel season.
God was indeed the artist of this journey. The pains that went with every step had humbled all of them and cleansed their hearts.
Susan’s mother, former dean of the College of Performing Arts Prof. Isabel Dimaya Vista, reminded them that only with pure hearts could they go on to become genuine goodwill ambassadors.
And Susan realized this, after all the beaming miracles they experienced while they were still in that dark tunnel, “that I have to forget that I’m Susan and everyone in SUGGA had to be humbled to become pure” and with all humility, they have allowed the gift of obedience from the “Mighty Fortress” to prevail.
With total obedience, they went on with the journey and there were still moments of testing again: Jose Mari Jonathan Antonio had to be rechecked at the Narita immigration as his name sounded like that of a Mexican druglord; funny guy Ian Caballes also had to face a bit of questioning. The two took quite a long time to be allowed entry into US soil.
And when they were celebrating being one family again, US-based alumnus Mister Silliman Spirit himself Gideon “Kuya Box” Alegado joined them as he was on the same flight. They serenaded him and he, as well as some people at the airport who gathered to listen to the singers, said they were touched by the sound of the angels. Kuya Box was in tears of joy and gave them a hundred dollar bill as gift.
The flight was delayed for four hours. The welcoming alumni group in Seattle led by Martin Ancheta were becoming anxious as they could not find the SUGGA whom they were hosting for the 14-hour stopover. Some members of the welcome party decided to just go back home but the Ancheta family and the rest of the alumni volunteers never stopped looking until they found the singers in a coffee shop.
Fellowshipping led to another Silliman Spirit day in Seattle, which included Hong Kong-based Silliman icon Dr. Betty Cernol- McCann who also was on her way to Fairbanks to represent the United Board for Christian Higher Education.
The Anchetas and friends were another reason to be thankful to the “Mighty Fortress.” They saved the SUGGA from being “sleepless in Seattle”.
Finally, out of the tunnel! In Fairbanks, daylight never left them as the sun would be up beyond everyone’s body clock.
SUGGA, with a name which means “where light meets light” in the Visayan language, started to find more wisdom in this journey.
The Tipon, a gathering of Sillimanians and friends from all over the world, were all with welcoming hearts for the SUGGA. Perpetual angel to Silliman performing artists Virginia Cacho-Almiron, wife of Tipon prime mover, Dr. Sylvester Almiron Jr. who was chair of the SU Alumni Council of North America (SUACONA). He expressed the clincher that on the celebration of this 10th year of SUACONA, “It would give a sense of completeness to have the music of SUGGA, a choir directed by Susan, as it was also Susan’s choir that gave the first Tipon in Chicago a unifying spirit.”
June 19 was the day of the SUGGA concert. It would have been a technical disaster as there was no time for sound check, no real stage to perform in the hall for the choreography to be viewed at one angle, and no complete sound facility to amplify the choral performance. But still in the spirit of the gift of obedience, they gave their best.
J. Rutter’s Magnificat shone to become a touching worship in the gospel opening, and the voices were loud and beautifully unified, touching everyone’s heart. Everyone was awed at the quality of every voice that was in the choir. Thunderous applause came after every song. The duet Sa Kabukiran in the Philippine Air of the repertoire was a display of the vocal magnificence of two sopranos, Ma. Elcon Cabasag and Katrina Saga. The piece successfully brought everyone into one sense of national pride that the applause was with fiesta glee.
The peaks of the concert were like running through a mountain range, bringing the Silliman family into heights of joys of homecoming, especially felt with the Mahal Kong Bayan which earned a standing ovation for these angels from home.
SUGGA came with music that touches, to give the generations of Sillimanians a moment of pure joy from the sense of pride of belonging to a culture of excellence, revisit into the inner soul stemming from the seed of faith in the Via Veritas Vita, the healing of the kindred spirit that had much of life challenges, and the realization that Silliman is a family worthy of a homecoming, with a legacy of faith within it expressed in gifts of gratitude and goodwill.
Truly, a Sillimananian in this journey of faith believes, “a Mighty Fortress is Our God”.