SAN DIEGO Men and children of the Nimo tribe ran their fingers across the keyboard as they enjoyed their first experience with a piano brought to them via a New Tribes Mission barge by missionary Paul Robinson.
Robinson served the jungle people of the May Riverthe area of East Sepik in Papua New Guinea, which shares the island with Indonesiafor 17 years and brought in the piano after his first term of service there.
"New Tribes Mission has their own fleet of planes and I maintained and serviced the jungle airstrip for the missionaries and the teams who came to the guest house for language study," he said.
The tribal people loved the piano, but Robinson had to keep it dry in the jungle weather.
"I had to keep light bulbs inside, and when the generator was on, I could dry out the piano," he said.
Robinson's three sons were homeschooled and also attended the mission school, but as the time came to launch them from home, the missionary said he felt it was time to change ministry location.
Today, he is a piano restoration expert in San Diego, the owner of the ACME Piano Company, which he purchased in 2000 from Jack Von Murik.
"He survived the German concentration camps and apprenticed as a piano rebuilder," he said. "When he came to America, he bought the company from the original owner in the early 1950s.
"I worked with Jack for several years, but he was in his mid-70s and wanted to retire. I was home from the mission field, looking for piano parts, and went to his store. Things fell into place, and I bought the store from him."
Learning on a 'wreck'
Robinson's love for pianos began early.
"I wanted to play since I was 5," he said. "I worked on pianos since junior high. My parents bought an old wreck of a piano, and I put it in the garage and refinished it. I took lessons from a lady.
"In high school, I bought old pianos from the newspaper, cheap, and fixed them up to sell them," Robinson said. "Then I started training to be a piano tuner when I was in training with New Tribes Mission. I read and studied books about piano tuning in the mid-1970s. I learned what to listen for, and the books were helpful, showing the procedures on how to tune the pianos."
At ACME Piano Company, he offers piano tuning, but also complete quality restoration of pianos.
"Many clients' pianos are handmade from the early 1900s, incredible instruments that families have had for years," Robinson said. He helps them preserve their family history and heritage.
Robinson also services the 40 pianos at a local Christian college.
"I love working there, with the caliber of students and their Christian emphasis. The work I'm doing is touching lives," he said.
Breaking down barriers
Though decades removed from the mission field, Robinson's wife Susan said her husband's evangelistic skills are still in action.
"When Paul meets with clients to tune and service their piano, he now calls this time his 'new mission field,'" she said. "He shares the gospel and his love of Jesus with clients, ministering to those in need as he is working on their piano!
"Not only does he bring their piano back to life, but he shares 'eternal life' as opportunity comes his way."
One client, Pam Monroe, has a concert Steinway, and Robinson has been her piano technician for more than 15 years. Monroe describes him as "a man of great integrity."
"His abilities as tuner, technician and instrument rebuilder are superb. I have a concert Steinway, and I trust him implicitly with that wonderful instrument."
Another client, Laura Hammes, owns a Starr Grand piano she inherited from her grandfather. She was touched that Robinson was interested in the history of her piano.
"I've had half-a-dozen piano tuners come and leave, but Paul loved our piano, and he had a phenomenal touch," she said. "That piano sounds better than it ever did in the 40 years I've had it!"
Yet it was Robinson's personality, character, and ethics that made him memorable.
"My husband and I enjoyed soaking up his optimistic view of life," Hammes said. "He's an amazing personan interesting dichotomy between businessman and missionary. He's just fascinating."
The universal language
Robinson said he's grateful for the ministry opportunities afforded to him through his piano business.
"It was amazing in New Guineaall those years on the front line," he said. "I had a heart for the world and reaching people who had never heard the gospel; but I had to come home and make a living, and I thought, 'It's not going to be like it was.'
"But then I started going into homesand it was personal contactand I made their pianos sound beautiful again. I'd play hymns when I finished, and clients would say, 'My mom used to sing that song,' or 'What's that song?' So I'd talk about the hymn, and then talk about the Lord."
It is music's universal language, Robinson said, that has prompted his use of it on which ever mission field he finds himself.
"The objective of New Tribes in New Guinea was a learning processlearning the language and the culture to communicate the truth of the gospel to the people," he said. "All around the world, music breaks down cultural barriers. Even here, when people may or may not have a background in Christianity, music will open doors to share."
Robinson's three sonsNathan, 33, Ben, 31, and Seth, 29adopted his love for music. Nathan is the worship pastor, playing piano and guitar; and his brothers join him on the worship team. Ben plays guitar, and Seth is the drummer. They have a band called "May River" after the river they grew up near.
Robinsons says he doesn't think he'll return to the foreign field, but "I'm spending my time challenging guys with young blood to go," he said.For more information about Robinson's work, visit www.acmethepianocompany.com or call (619) 276-1010.
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