Pastor sees music as a tool for building community
November 22, 2021
For Pastor Juhee Lee, a former professional musician, music is a tool.
A tool for building community and breaking down barriers.
A tool for fostering confidence and self-esteem.
A tool for healing and inspiring the spirit.
And the first step is to put that tool into as many hands as possible. To do that, Pastor Lee started a music school at Haven United Methodist Church in East Providence, RI.
At Haven Music School Pastor Lee and volunteers she’s recruited from the community and nearby Brown University teach students of all ages piano, violin, and hand chime bells for free.
“I wanted to make a community like Jesus created where everyone is welcome regardless of social status,” Pastor Lee said. “Our society is segregated by race or ethnicity or economic situation; I’d like to break that wall – music can be the tool.”
A fundraising concert to establish the school was planned for the spring of 2020. Then the pandemic hit, and the concert was cancelled.
Still with a $2,500 grant from the United Methodist Foundation of New England and gifts from several local churches Pastor Lee had the seed money to establish the music school.
“I could do this music ministry because of the support from our conference, local churches, congregation members, and volunteers in our town,” Pastor Lee said. “Moreover, because of God's guidance, I could do it despite my physical limits.”
Pastor Lee led a one-time xylophone class in the summer of 2020 and began to advertise for students to enroll in the fall.
Those first nine students ranged in age from 8 to 73. Three students dropped out — Pastor Lee acknowledges, “the violin is hard,” but the others persisted, and with their teacher’s help and encouragement worked toward a concert in May 2021.
When the 73-year-old had trouble reading music, Pastor Lee used the names of the woman’s grandchildren to help her remember the notes.
To help a student who was afraid to learn something new," Pastor Lee began by teaching him to play piano with just three fingers. When they moved to five fingers, he became frustrated, Pastor Lee said, but she told him: “Please, head up and see the challenges directly, and try to play slowly as much as you can. Trust yourself. You can do it.”
And he is getting much better, she said. She encourages him to play in front of the congregation after special worship services, even if he only uses his right hand.
“By sharing his gift with the congregation, his self-esteem is getting higher. I am very proud of him,” Pastor Lee said.
This summer, Pastor Lee secured an additional grant from the Foundation to support a healing through music project. After a two-week music camp, students performed concerts at three nursing homes, a senior center, and a library.
Just this month, one of her students had the day off from school and came to the church to practice. Pastor Lee invited him to join her on a visit to a 93-year-old church member, and they played for him together.
“He cried and applauded,” Pastor Lee said. “It’s very worth it, the music ministry.”
Even so, Pastor Lee is committed to making the music school self-sustaining and function without financial support from the church. To that end, she’s made connections in the community such as with a local music store that donated 15 violins for the students to use.
Pastor Lee regularly emails the mayor’s office about the music school, and was invited to perform at this year’s Christmas tree lighting.
But cold weather is bad for the instruments, so she had to turn the opportunity down.
Still, knowing the mayor is a good thing, and the city donated four used Chromebooks to the church to be used as monitors for live-streaming worship (and concerts).
Pastor Lee began her own music lessons because her pastor father “wanted his children to learn music to praise God.” He thought six-year-old Juhee should take piano lessons. But she had other ideas.
“I don’t know why, but I said, ‘I want to learn the violin.’ I was six years old – how did I know the violin?”
Affording the lessons was a challenge, but her aunt and teachers willing to forgo or defer their fees made it possible.
“If someone can afford to pay, then I accept that. If not, then I share my gift freely,” Pastor Lee said. “I received God’s grace in that way, so I wanted God’s grace to flow to other people.”
And it has. A student of Pastor Lee’s from 15 years ago reached out to her about five months ago to say that she had graduated from a prestigious university in Korea and was now offering free violin lessons to those who cannot afford to pay.
“I shared the gift of music, that gift bore another fruit, and that made a miracle,” Pastor Lee said. “Music is a tool to make miracles.”
Further evidence of her gifts bearing fruit was seen during Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar’s visit to the Seacoast District in September, when Haven UMC Church Council Chair George Glover thanked the bishop for appointing Pastor Lee to the church, where she’s served since July 1, 2019.
“I am just so excited by the spirit that’s going on at Haven church with the music program that’s she’s instituted and the spirit that she’s brought to the church,” Glover said. “I personally am so happy you had the vision to appoint her to our church …”
Glover described Pastor Lee as “the Energizer Bunny.”
“But bigger than that, it’s the spirit, the movement … what’s happening at because of her devotion,” he said. “She’s kind of like the Energizer Bunny. I don’t know where she gets all her energy from, but, boy, she has it. I feel the movement of the spirit. It’s just wonderful.”
Evidence of that energy is the music school’s Saturday schedule that begins with Pastor Lee collecting the volunteers who teach piano. She takes them home, then picks up the Brown University students who help teach violin at the school. Once Pastor Lee returns them to campus, she’s back at the church to practice with Haven’s Chamber Youth Ensemble.
“So, from 11 am to 5 pm, I come and go, come and go,” Pastor Lee said. “Sometimes I physically get tired, but this ministry gives me a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I give lots of energy to the students, but I receive lots of energy from the students, too.”
After studying violin in Korea and Germany, she was she was the first chair violinist in the Christian Television System Orchestra in Korea for two years. It was in 2008 that she and her husband came to the U.S., settling in Atlanta. She studied violin at Georgia State University where she earned a master’s degree in 2012.
“When I came to the U.S. my situation, context, was totally different, and I needed to find my calling again here,” she said. “I tried to find a path to pursue being a Christian musician, but God opened a [different] door” in the form of aDean's Fellowship Scholarship from Boston University School of Theology. She graduated in 2020.
And while she loves giving lessons and enjoyed her life as a professional musician, her ministry as a pastor is where she is called now.
“When I am doing the ministry at my church, this joy is much more than teaching the violin. When I’m with my congregation, I pour out my love to my congregation as much as I can,” Pastor Lee said. “I can see their faces changing, and that their lives are changing and that their spirits are transformed, that gives me a lot of energy to work more and more.”
Pastor Lee was concerned that her command of English might be a barrier, but like music, love is a language everyone can understand.
“I really appreciate their love. Whatever I say, they understand it through the heart,” she said. “Language is not all there is to ministry.”
The Haven UMC Christmas Concert featuring Pastor Lee and some of the Music School students will be 3 pm on Sunday, Dec. 5,
2021, at the church at 200 Taunton Ave. in East Providence, RI.
After the Christmas concert coming up in early December, Pastor Lee plans to have the students play their repertoire at nursing homes and other locations around the community.
The concert is a fundraiser for a mission group that helps people in Guatemala afford cataract surgery. “At Christmas we celebrate that Jesus is the light of the world,” Pastor Lee said, and the image of the blind once again being able to see the light with the help of this surgery resonated with her and inspired her to use the concert to raise funds for this mission.
Going forward, “I hope to develop more relationships with the community; I dream that many people will be involved in our ministry and lead this outreach program for Missio Dei together,” Pastor Lee said. “As music is a tool to break physical or spiritual walls, I want to be a small tool to break negative energies in our society with goodness and establish God's kingdom in this world.”