Former Don Ho drummer rejuvenates N.C. congregation with music
The Rev. Ron Lee, stated supply pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in China Grove, N.C., is a perfect example of infectious enthusiasm.
Lee is a second career pastor with a fascinating background. Born in Hawaii, he was raised Catholic, converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, and then left the church entirely for many years.
During this time, he didn’t particularly feel a void in his life. He was a musician by trade and spent many years playing all over the world, including some time spent as drummer for Don Ho of “Tiny Bubbles” fame.
Lee and his second wife eventually moved to North Carolina to be closer to her aging parents. He continued to play music and took up a career in computers where he worked for IBM. Then with no warning the course of his life transformed.
“It was May 20, 2002 at 10:00 p.m. that my life was forever changed,” says Lee. “I know the exact date and time because the memory is sealed vividly for me.”
His wife was out of town and Lee was channel surfing on TV. When he hit the Inspiration channel and heard “churchy-sounding” music, he tried to change the channel but the remote wouldn’t work.
He heard a voice in his spirit say “You need to watch this” and so he did. When the minister said “There’s someone out there who still doesn’t know Jesus Christ,” Lee realized something missing in his life.
“I was Catholic, then Jewish and for 20 years nothing, and then one night, there was Jesus on TV,” he says. “This was a bolt from the blue for me, because I didn’t even own a Bible. It had been years since religion held a place in my life.”
Lee continued to follow the spirit voice, which first led him first to join Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church in Charlotte and then to attend seminary at age 55.
After graduating in 2009 from Union Presbyterian Seminary-Charlotte, he began preaching in churches throughout the area as pulpit supply.
“I am glad for M.Div. educational programs such as Union Seminary-Charlotte provides, which allow persons who feel a call to ministry to be able to transition from their current work to a ministry in such a setting as China Grove,” says the Rev. Sam Marshall, executive-general presbyter for Salem Presbytery.
“Without that type of seminary program, Rev. Lee’s answering of his call to ministry would have been much more difficult,” he adds. “Our second-career clergy bring essential gifts and enthusiasm to our congregations which are undergoing a transformational ministry.”
Lee’s style is unique because he incorporates his musical gifts into his preaching. It’s a natural fit that Lee finds enriches his calling.
“Since I was a boy I was encouraged to use my gifts of music, but throughout a 40 year career I’d never written anything. After my call, I wrote six to eight pieces of (religious) music within weeks,” he says. “God gives us each our own unique gifts. We must bring them forward to be used by God. I’d been using my gifts all my life for my own glory but they’re not for me. They belong to God to be used for the glorification of God.”
Lee traveled around to various churches with his portable keyboard and brought his music and preaching to the congregations he visited. One of these churches was Immanuel Presbyterian Church in China Grove, a small congregation that had dwindled to six members when Lee first visited.
After two weeks, the clerk and other members wanted to call Lee to be pastor of the church. Lee began as part-time stated supply, but when Lee started preaching there Immanuel started to grow. According to Lee the church now boasts 61 members with about 35-40 attending worship on Sundays, including a number of “unchurched” people.
Among the new members are young couples, families, and teens. Lee recently had his first confirmand in the church. Some of Immanuel’s new families are Hispanic, giving Lee ― a Hawaiian native who is also ethnically different from his new congregation ― reason to hope his church can grow into a multicultural one.
The number of new families has created the need for a new nursery, which Immanuel recently opened.
“God’s spirit had walked away a long time ago,” says Lee. “To prepare that spiritual ground took a lot, but it’s moving forward.”
Physical signs of new life are visible at Immanuel as well. Lee asked about getting new hymnals to replace the 1950s-vintage books the congregation had sung from for years. “The next week $900 showed up,” says Lee. “We were able to get 90 books, which are quite a bit more than we have members, so we’re ready for growth.”
Giving to the church has tripled, so some leaky windows have been replaced and the church grounds have been newly landscaped. Immanuel has also added praise music leaders Bill and Eleanor Daily.
“All of us in Salem Presbytery celebrate Ron Lee’s ministry at China Grove,” says Marshall. “He began his outreach ministry with a congregation of less than 15 members. With his gift of music and the gift of gracious hospitality, I would characterize his ministry as one of exuberant joy. It appears to be contagious!”
Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer and frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church.