Former Don Ho drummer called to ministry
By Sarah Hall
for Salisbury Post
How does a Hawaiian-born, Jewish drummer go from performing in clubs at Lake Tahoe to preaching as an ordained Presbyterian minister in China Grove, N.C.?
The Lord works in mysterious ways, and he chooses unlikely messengers. He got Moses’ attention with a burning bush. For Paul, it was a blinding light on the road to Damascus. Ron Lee’s moment of truth came through the glow of a TV screen.
Ron’s childhood home in Hawaii was filled with musical instruments, thanks to his musician father who would tell young Ron, “Go over there and pluck on something.”
He was playing ukulele at age 5, and violin in grade school, “but I was always banging on stuff,” says Ron, laughing. “Pots, pans, anything. My mother told my father, ‘Get this boy something,’ and he got me some five-dollar bongos. Then later he got me cymbals and a snare.”
In high school, he played drums with the band Linda Green and the Tempos, a group that stood out by playing standards while other bands were doing rock n’ roll. They were selected as one of the top bands in Hawaii in a contest judged by Sophie Tucker. This led to radio airplay, a contract with Reprise Records, and the honor of opening for big acts that came through. So 15-year-old Ron found himself sharing the stage with the Kinks, Herman’s Hermits, the Righteous Brothers and Jan and Dean.
At graduation, he was awarded a music scholarship to San Francisco Conservatory where he met his first wife. The couple moved to Los Angeles, and Ron transferred to University of Southern California.
Some of his teachers at USC were also studio musicians. He accompanied his teachers to studios where he got to observe conducting legends like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. At the same time, he was working clubs in LA and Vegas.
That led to a regular job as percussionist in the 39-piece house band for a club at Lake Tahoe, backing up Neil Sedaka, John Davidson, John Denver, Tony Orlando, and Bernadette Peters, to name just a few.
Ron’s marriage came to an end. He took a job playing in bands on cruise ships, sailing the globe. He performed for the Princess Cruise Lines’ corporate restaurant. It was around this time he met Margie, who worked in real estate development. Then when Ron returned home for his father’s funeral, he reconnected with Margie, who had moved to Hawaii. They got married in 1989.
In the 1990s, Ron spent five years as the drummer for Don Ho, including playing on his popular TV show.
In 1997, the Lees moved to Charlotte where Margie’s brother lived so she could be closer to her aging parents in her hometown of Savannah, Ga. Ron got a job with the house band at Swing 1000 club in Charlotte. A couple years later they moved to Raleigh for Margie’s new job. Ron attended computer school, which led to a new career working at IBM. He was still performing gigs in the evenings.
It was on May 20, 2002 at 10 p.m. that Ron’s life would be forever changed. He knows the exact date and time: “The memory is sealed vividly for me,” he states.
His wife was out of town, and Ron was channel surfing before bedtime. When he landed on the INSP channel, he says, “I heard this churchy-sounding music, so I tried to switch it. But the channel wouldn’t change. Then I heard a voice — not audible, but in my spirit — say, ‘You need to watch this.’”
Ron paid attention to what was preached and even took notes. Then the minister looked into the camera and said, “There’s somebody out there who still doesn’t know Jesus Christ. Pray this prayer with me...”
Ron had dropped to the floor, weeping uncontrollably.
“I felt as if God draped a warm blanket around me,” he remembers. “I heard that ‘still, small voice’ they talk about, the Holy Spirit, speaking to me. I said, ‘From this day forward I promise to seek you in prayer.’”
This was a bolt from the blue for Ron, who didn’t even own a Bible. It had been years since religion held a place in his life. He had grown up in a Catholic home, but his first wife was a Reformed Jew, so Ron had converted and been a practicing Jew for 14 years. Margie’s background was Baptist, but the two of them never joined a church.
When Margie returned from her trip, she found her husband a changed man, one who would engage in daily prayer and Bible reading. And she embraced this new, and sometimes miraculous, life.
In his 40 years as a professional musician, Ron had never composed music. But now he wrote song after song, which came to him in the night. He had not really played piano in the past but started accompanying himself on keyboard as he sang.
“I would hear a voice singing, and I would get up and go write the songs down. And sermons, too. I was having discussions with God. In the night, God has your full attention.”
Margie had been out of work for a year. Ron turned this problem over to God, and Margie soon got a call from the Rack Room Corporate Office in Charlotte asking her to start a job there right away. They moved back to Charlotte and settled into the Highland Creek area.
They were still not part of a faith community. Ron prayed, “You pick the label this time, Lord. Put me where I can be effective for the kingdom of God.”
He was driving past Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church when he heard the voice tell him to pull into the parking lot and go in the sanctuary. Ron says that when he entered, “a fragrance fell from the ceiling as sweet as dozens of bouquets of roses. I felt God touch the back of my head.”
Ron found the pastor, Larry Mitchell, and told him he had not been in a church in over 20 years. He played some of his songs for the pastor, who invited him to worship there.
Margie was out of town, and when Ron called and told her he wanted to visit the church, she said that was OK, but asked him not to join. She wanted them to make the decision together.
Ron played a Saturday night gig and earned $200. The next morning, as he was shaving in preparation for church, he heard, “I want you to join today. And give that $200 check to the church.”
Ron resisted. After all, his wife had asked him not to join. But the voice repeated the instructions.
“My hand was shaking as I finished shaving,” he says. “I ran in and gave Larry the $200 and said I wanted to join. He said, ‘I thought you were going to wait,’ but I told him ‘I’ve got to listen to the Lord and obey.’”
That afternoon Margie called, and Ron told her he’d broken his promise. He told her “We both have to listen.” She joined there also.
Ron had joined on Sept. 29, 2002. Six months later, he filled out an application to attend seminary. Six months is the minimum amount of time one must be a member of a Presbyterian Church before applying to seminary. He would be the first member of Mallard Creek to attend seminary in over 25 years.
In prayer, Ron had heard “I want you to preach,” but he answered, “I’m a drummer, not a preacher. Put me in a praise band.”
And God answered, “It’s not about your comfort, it’s what I want you to do. Go to seminary.”
So Ron entered Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte at age 55. It took him seven years to complete the course of study while working part-time for IBM. In 2007, he went to Hawaii for an internship at First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu. He did a second internship at Charlotte’s Presbyterian Hospital
Ron graduated in 2009 and began preaching in churches throughout the Charlotte area as pulpit supply. In November, he preached the first time at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in China Grove, a small but stalwart congregation with only 12 members left on the church roll. Lacking resources to call a new pastor, Immanuel had been using pulpit supply for two years when Ron first came to them.
He walked in with his keyboard and music, and ministered with both word and song. After his second visit, he was asked to stay as stated supply.
With the call to Immanuel, Ron was able to complete the last step in becoming a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament. On Feb. 8 he was examined at the meeting of Salem Presbytery where he preached for those assembled, and sang his statement of faith. On the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 13, members of Immanuel traveled to Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church where Ron Lee was ordained.
On Sundays, Ron glides easily between the pulpit and the digital piano at the front of the church. His musical offerings hold stylistic remnants of his performing past. Visitors are showing up in the pews, checking out the musical stylings and inspired preaching of the Rev. Ron Lee.
“He uses analogies to the Bible like Hopalong Cassidy, Popeye, and Forest Gump,” says church member Zubecca Brown. “I am the most exited about church that I have been for years!”
A recent campaign to replace the church’s old hymnbooks raised enough money to buy 95 new ones. Ron expresses confidence that in time — God’s time — they will be needing all those hymnals.