Von Trapp musical legacy benefits hurricane relief


(UMNS Feature) - Elisabeth Von Trapp often says, "If you fill the (concert) hall with people, I'll fill it with the 'sound of music.'"

After all, the sound of music is a family tradition for Von Trapp. She is the granddaughter of Capt. Georg Von Trapp and daughter of Werner, known as "Kurt" in the "Sound of Music" movie and musical about the Von Trapp Family Singers.

Music isn't the only tradition Von Trapp continues. She also keeps alive the Von Trapp tradition of raising money for relief efforts.

While it's not surprising that the Von Trapp Family Singers are well known in Austria, it is surprising to learn it's not because Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer starred in a movie about them, or that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein wrote a musical based on their lives.

No, the Von Trapps are remembered for their legacy of faith and their charity work as much as for their music. After the family moved to the United States and following the end of World War II in Europe, the Von Trapp Family Singers ended each performance by collecting money for Austrian Relief.

"One of the things that struck me as a child was how hard (the family) worked to help others," Elisabeth Von Trapp said. "My grandfather's job was to gather up all the relief donations and ship them off" to Europe before the family drove to the site of the next performance.

So it was natural that when Hurricane Katrina struck, Von Trapp would follow in her family's footsteps. She has been helping raise money for hurricane relief by performing benefit concerts throughout the country. In mid-March, Von Trapp and accompanist Erick Kory performed to more than 150 people at the First United Methodist Church in Burlington, Vt., and raised $2,000.

The money will be used to support First's sister church, Dantzler Memorial United Methodist Church in Moss Point, Miss., said the Rev. Richard Hibbert, pastor at First Church Burlington.

Grateful for help
Dantzler has become home base for many Volunteer In Mission teams working in the Gulf Coast disaster area. The congregation installed showers, and classrooms now double as dorms. Once a week, the congregation serves a meal to the volunteers staying with them.

"They didn't know where the money (for the installation of the showers) was coming from," Hibbert said. "They used a Lowe's credit card to buy the supplies, and that gave them 30 days to pay. A group came in and was so grateful for the showers; it gave the church the money to pay the (Lowe's) bill."

Typically, the Moss Point church houses 100 to 110 volunteers a week, said the Rev. David Greer, pastor. It had originally planned to house between 40 and 50 volunteers.

"We are very grateful to everyone who has come and offered some kind of assistance," he said. Having a sister church lets the congregation know that "there's someone else out there that's concerned about us, that thinks about us, that keeps their congregation informed as best they can about what is happening here."

Sister cities, sister churches
The connection between First Church in Burlington and Dantzler Memorial in Moss Point is an outgrowth of the sister relationship developed between the cities of Burlington and Moss Point.

"The mayor of Burlington, Peter Clavelle, had issued a challenge to all Vermont schools, businesses, churches and other organizations to assist the people of Moss Point," said Ed Hall, Von Trapp's husband and partner. At that point, Hibbert contacted Greer "to start a relationship of prayer and sharing, so we had this wonderful relationship between Burlington United Methodist Church and Moss Point United Methodist Church," Hall said.

Hall and Von Trapp live near Burlington, and when they contacted First Church about holding a benefit concert there, Hibbert was very interested. The concert became the latest in a string of benefits that Von Trapp has given since Hurricane Katrina. Last October, she performed at Dantzler Memorial, raising more than $1,300 for relief efforts.

A full-time musician, Von Trapp has recorded several CDs, most recently an album of sacred music. In concerts, her diverse repertoire includes such songs from the musical as "Edelweiss" and "My Favorite Things."

Inspired to help
The idea for last fall's concerts in Moss Point came while Hall and Von Trapp were driving to Georgia and Florida for other engagements.

"I remember feeling so burdened for the people in Louisiana and Mississippi, and I had had such a heavy heart for days," Von Trapp said. "As we were driving south, a way (to help) opened up, and I thought (the idea) was really a godsend."

Plans quickly came together. Von Trapp's cousin, Elizabeth Von Trapp Walker, a United Methodist elder serving the Trinity Church Charge in the Virginia Annual Conference, arranged two performances - one at her church and one at the Fairfield United Methodist Church in Danville.

The couple also contacted the mayor's office in Burlington, which put them in touch with Greer at Moss Point. In addition, Hall and Von Trapp - both Episcopalians - planned concerts to benefit Episcopal Relief and Development in Louisiana and the diocese of New Orleans.

While working at an Episcopal camp between concerts, Von Trapp was exposed to mold, which left her with laryngitis the day of the Moss Point concert. She was told by an ear, throat and nose specialist she should not sing for at least 48 hours.

"We called Moss Point and told them the situation," Von Trapp said. "They said they'd get the adult choir and the youth choir and we'll surround her with music."

So Von Trapp played the guitar and recited selections from Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." And while the Dantzler Memorial adult choir sang the melody from Bach's chorale, "Oh Sacred Heart So Wounded," Von Trapp recited Tom Glazer's "Because All Men Are Brothers."

"There wasn't a dry eye in the church," Von Trapp said. "There was a sacred feeling that everyone had united to help each other. I wasn't there to entertain, I was there to comfort. We comforted each other."

"People really appreciated her being there and her willingness to come knowing she was suffering from laryngitis," Greer said.

Money for UMCOR
The Burlington and Moss Point concerts were not the first time Von Trapp had given benefit performances at United Methodist churches. During the Christmas 2004 season, she did a concert at the Bon Air United Methodist Church in Richmond, Va., to raise money for the National Committee on Ministries with Deaf, Late-Deafened, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf-Blind People, a United Methodist ministry.

"We were able to send to UMCOR from her concert over $2,000," said Pastor Walker, daughter of Rupert Von Trapp, known as "Friedrich" in the theatrical story. Extremely hard of hearing, Walker said she will sign at least two hymns as Von Trapp sings them.

"I really pray that the entire connectional system would become aware of the gift she has and its use for raising money hurricane relief," Walker said. "Elisabeth was gifted with incredible musical ability, an incredible voice and an incredible faith. I was gifted with a call.

"Faith is a very natural part of being a Von Trapp," she said. "That's what they stood for - that's why they left Austria; they took a stand and could not support what was happening around them. They could have stayed and kept their family and fortune, but you can regain a fortune. Once you've lost your integrity and faith, it's gone."

Having been given that example of faith and generosity as a child, Von Trapp said she "felt such inner peace" from sharing music with the Dantzler Memorial United Methodists, the Episcopal relief workers and other hurricane survivors and relief workers.

"When you reach out and extend the gift you have, you realize that you are the one being enriched," she said. "The other person's faith and what they are expressing helps me understand life on another level. Unless we rally together, change can't be made and the help that is needed can't be extended."

Von Trapp and Hall have been talking with a number of United Methodist groups and churches across the country and plan to do more concerts to benefit UMCOR's Hurricanes 2005 relief fund.

"You fill the churches with an audience and I'll fill it with the sound of music," Von Trapp repeated. Then, alluding to a famous song from the musical, she added: "We won't just climb mountains together; we can move mountains."