The story and music of the Freedom Singers has brought joy and hope to audiences across North America through their performances on stage, their recordings and appearances on TV.
More than 300 people in Stettler got to witness their powerful testimony when the trio performed at the Erskine Evangelical Free Church’s annual Christmas banquet on Saturday, Dec. 6.
Brothers Simon and Stefan Ivascu, plus bandmate Jake Losen, sang gospel music with tight harmonies, interspersed with stories of the Ivascu brothers’ journey from their native Romania to Canada.
Facing mandatory military service and not wanting to compromise their Christian faith, the brothers separately fled their homeland, eventually arriving in Canada and settling in Kelowna, B.C.
Simon Ivascu told the story of his escape 15 years ago, and of his journey across the ocean, stowed away deep within the cargo hold of a large ship, where he and his fellow escapee nearly died from lack of oxygen, food and water.
Though the voyage challenged his faith, he said he couldn’t have survived without the guiding hand of God.
“I was not alone through the whole journey, the almighty God was with me,” Simon said. “I simply cannot deny the hand of God.”
Senior pastor Ross Helgeton said that the intent of the annual banquet is to give back to the community and to make sure people are aware of the church’s presence.
“We feel the community does a lot for us,” he said. “We just want people to come and have a good time . . . I say we want people to know that we’re there, and there for them.”
Helgeton reported that a total of 336 people attended, the largest turnout in the four years the church has held the banquet. He estimated that only one third of those attending were part of the Erskine congregation.
The banquet featured a catered meal served by Teresa’s Catering of Donalda.
Helgeton welcomed the crowd to begin the event, while board chair Larry Henry asked the blessing on the food.
The band performed following the meal, with Simon cracking jokes about “how hard it is to sing on a full stomach.”
Their repertoire included gospel songs old and new, and the trio invited the audience to sing along with several Christmas carols, including “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World.”
Several songs had personal significance for band members, including “Try Jesus,” which Stefan had sung during a performance on a cruise ship years prior, just after learning that his family had lost all its possessions in an apartment fire.
Simon also recalled how, during his trip across the ocean, his companion had begun singing the Gaither family classic “Because He Lives” in their native tongue. He and his brother then sang the song, with the audience joining later in English.