Lutherans in the Twin Cities

From Buddha to Bach

Japanese musician made an unexpected pilgrimage to Lutheranism

There’s a reason Lutheran church musician, organist, choirmaster and composer Johann Sebastian Bach has been called “the fifth evangelist.” His music, composed in Germany during the 1700s, famously led Jewish musician Felix Mendelssohn into the Lutheran Church more than a century after Bach’s own death! As a Jewish Lutheran, Mendelssohn then composed a symphony based on Martin Luther’s powerful hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” He also launched a Bach revival, a movement which continues, worldwide, today.

One could credibly argue that Bach spoke to Mendelssohn from the grave. And it’s not the first time it’s happened. More recently, a Buddhist teen-ager, a native of Japan, where Christianity is almost invisible, caught “Bach fever.” It set church musician Yuko Maruyama on a path that brought her, after many turns in the road, to the organ bench at Bethany Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis’ Seward Neighborhood.

In a conversation at Bethany on February 1, the congenial musician talked to Metro Lutheran about her fascination with Bach.

Said Yuko, whose modesty and diminutive stature belie her musical skill, “I first heard Bach’s music when I was a teen-ager living in Niigata [a city near Nagano, Japan]. It’s a tiny, conservative village near the ocean. Culturally, virtually everyone — including my family — is Buddhist, as I once was.

“I became familiar with Bach when I heard his music on recordings and on radio broadcasts. Listening to it, I realized I was missing something. Bach introduced me to God, Jesus and Christianity.”

The German composer inspired Yuko to pursue an avocation as a church musician, which later developed into a vocation. Years later, as a candidate for a degree in church music at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minne-sota, she took a required course at St. Olaf College.

“It was Dr. John Ferguson’s music practicum class. I wrote a paper entitled ‘J.S. Bach: Is he still alive?’”

It was a rhetorical question. Says Yuko, “Bach’s music is ‘old’ and many consider it ‘old-fashioned.’ But when congregations worship with his music shaping the experience, he’s alive and present.”

How exactly does that work? “When I play a fugue, I can feel Bach talking to God. It’s like a prayer reaching into heaven.”

Getting from Japan to Minnesota was a complex process. Asked how that happened, Yuko laughs and says, “I could write a whole book about the process.” Here’s the short version:

When she was a teen-ager she stumbled upon a Lutheran congregation, an LCMS mission near her parents’ home. She began worshipping there.

Soon after beginning to worship in the Lutheran congregation, Yuko told the pastor she wanted to learn to become a church organist. “It turned out they needed someone to play their pump organ. I began playing it.”

She was baptized at age 17, to the distress of her Buddhist father, who has still not reconciled himself to her having become Chris-tian. (She admits her mother also still asks her, sometimes, why she took the step.)

She attended Japan Lutheran College in Tokyo, where she played organ frequently. After graduation, music went onto the back burner, until she found a job that took her to Bangkok, Thailand.

“I met Dr. Bruce Kramer, responsible for the music program in the International (English language) Church there. He was from St. Paul, Minnesota. I told him of my dream of becoming a church organist. He invited me to come to Minnesota after he returned.”

In the Twin Cities she took music lessons, and then enrolled at Luther Seminary, earning the Master of Sacred Music degree in 2006.

“It was tough finding a church organist position. But when I applied at Bethany, I was fortunate to be the finalist for the position.”

Says Bethany’s pastor, the Rev. Jay Wiesner, a college music major, “When Yuko applied, we had our doubts she could handle the position. But when she auditioned, she blew us away.”

Yuko says, “I’ve been in a lot of congregations where I felt a cold, unfriendly atmosphere. By contrast, [Bethany] congregation is incredibly warm and welcoming. I love it here.”

She adds, “I’m happy to work with Pastor Jay. He understands music really well. We’re a good team.”

Wiesner says the congregation is growing larger and younger. Part of that is clearly due to the pastor’s efforts. But he is convinced Yuko is part of the reason for that. “People come to hear her play our pipe organ,” he says.