Four decades ago, World Vision founder Bob Pierce introduced a Korean children's choir to America to publicize the plight of war orphans and to find sponsors for the group dedicated to humanitarian relief work.
But this year, as the celebrated World Vision Korea Children's Choir from Seoul embarks on a 16-city tour in the United States, the young performers aren't seeking help for themselves but are singing as a "voice for voiceless" children around the world suffering from hunger and diseases.
On Thursday evening, 33 girls and five boys teamed up with popular Christian songwriter and recording artist Twila Paris to sing, dance and drum before more than 1,000 people at Los Angeles Christian Presbyterian Church in El Sereno, near Cal State L.A.
At times, the three-hour concert seemed more like a worship service.
Paris, who considers music her ministry, interspersed singing with brief homilies and interpretations of Scripture, and invited the audience to join in prayer and singing.
Surprisingly, usually reticent middle-aged and older Koreans did just that.
Clapping their hands, they followed the verses projected on two giant screens and sang along -- sometimes lifting their hands into the air or bringing their hands together in a prayerful pose.
Some looked at each other and smiled as if to say they couldn't believe they had really joined in.
Ed and Eunju Kwak, a Korean American couple who attend the host church, said they were enchanted by the program, which included Korean folk songs, "The Battle Hymn of Republic," contemporary worship songs and selections from "The Sound of Music."
"Their voices are so clear and lovely," Eunju Kwak said.
And their message stirred her heart, she said, prompting her at intermission to sign up to sponsor a child.
The message, read in Korean by a choir member, was straightforward: Don't forget the hurting children around the world. Share God's love and blessings with them, as you did with Korean orphans of long ago.
World Vision, a Christian humanitarian relief organization operating in 100 countries, was founded by Pierce in 1950 to minister to war orphans and widows during the Korean War.
In 1960, he started the children's choir with musically gifted youngsters from South Korean orphanages who were receiving aid from American sponsors through World Vision. He brought the choir to tour in the United States to help find more sponsors.
Until several years ago, World Vision was headquartered in Monrovia. It still has local offices, but the corporate headquarters is now in Seattle.
Jun Seo Park, an official from the headquarters who has been traveling on the bus with the choir, said South Korea is an exemplary case of how charity can beget more charity.
South Koreans donate $40 million a year to World Vision, he said. In the United States, Koreans Americans contribute $10 million.
Unlike World Vision Korean children's choirs of the 1960s and '70s, the current members are not orphans. They come from families affluent enough to pay for their plane fares.
This group, consisting of sixth- through ninth-graders, was chosen from across South Korea, after stiff auditions, said Hee Churl Kim, U.S.-educated conductor of the ensemble.
The choir meets for three-hour rehearsals three times a week.
"The children spend one hour each way on the subway to get to the practice," Kim said. "They are gifted and beautiful children. They're mission-minded. I love them when they're good; I love them even when they're disagreeable."
All of them Christians, the youngsters consider singing to be their ministry. Even at their young ages, most say they want to go into Christian service after college.
"When I grow up, I want to become a music minister," said Ha Kyun Sin, an eighth-grader.
Sin, whose father is a businessman and whose mother is a full-time homemaker, said he thanks God for the opportunity to sing in and see America and hopes to take back to Seoul the lessons he learns on the trip.
One of those is working out differences among choir members. "When we resolve our disagreements well, it is a good feeling," he said.
Even though their schedule is hectic and they travel many hours on the bus -- the group left late Thursday night for Tucson -- he doesn't find it difficult.
"The Lord supplies me with strength," the 14-year-old said.
Song Yi Jung, a ninth-grader who wants to be a musical actress like Julie Andrews, said spending time with U.S. host families has been educational.
"They cannot do enough for us," she said. "Not speaking English makes it difficult, but somehow we manage to communicate."
Among the other discoveries by Jung and Sin: American audiences are not shy. "They are very expressive," Jung said. "They will applaud, whistle and let you know when they are pleased."
"Koreans are more reserved, so they don't react openly," Sin added.
After six days of eating only American food, both were glad that their host church in Los Angeles was Korean. Women from Christian Presbyterian prepared a feast: barbecued beef, vegetable and seafood tempura, a variety of vegetable side dishes and kimchi, the spicy pickled cabbage.
It was the best meal of the tour, Paris told her audience.
Paris, who with her husband, 5-year-old son and band is traveling with the choir, said that sometimes when the children are performing, she and band members sit backstage and watch.
"We sit mesmerized, night after night," she said.
Because of the differences in the music, Paris and members of the Korean team said they prayed a lot before the start of the tour that God would establish a bond and "unity in spirit."
"It is working out beautifully," said conductor Kim. Many concertgoers thought so Thursday night.
As they headed for their cars in a packed church parking lot on a moonlit night, some could be heard humming Paris' "He Is Exulted."