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St. Peder’s music cheerleader

Twin Cities Danish Lutherans know Rita Juhl

She is a champion for pipe organs at worship. She fights for music education in the public schools. She keeps them singing at family camp. And she has been on the organ bench for worship, at the same congregation, since 1952.
At St. Peder’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in south Minneapolis, Rita Juhl is a legend. Music seems to course through her veins. Her passion for teaching, leading, and sharing music keeps her going — and keeps her fan club growing.
Juhl fits right in at St. Peder’s, a congregation grounded in the “Happy Dane” tradition. Her home congregation, in Ringsted, Iowa, is rooted in the same ethos, as is Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, where she attended her first two years of college. In Ringsted, she became parish organist at age 14. “They offered me one dollar a Sunday to play, but then rounded that up to $60 for the year. I thought that was pretty good, at the time.”

Rita Juhl

“Almost every night I pray, ‘God, tell me when it’s time to let go.’ Because I love organ playing so much, I don’t want to outlast my skill.”

She met her husband, Richard, at Grand View, before transferring to the University of Minnesota where she earned a degree in Music Education. It was while she was studying in Minneapolis that she was invited to become St. Peder’s organist.
Rita fell in love with St. Peder’s congregation and the members obviously fell in love with her. Her longevity on the organ bench is testimony to that. Not long ago the congregation’s current pastor, the Rev. Julie Ebbesen, was standing with Rita, surveying the “wall of pastors,” a photo gallery picturing, row upon row, all the clergy who had served the congregation from its inception. Said Ebbesen, “Rita, you have played the organ [at St. Peder] through this whole bottom row of pastors!”

Why are those Danes happy?

But there is more to Rita. Each August she spends a week leading the singing at family camp near Tyler in southwest Minnesota. “The camp meets on the campus of what was once a Danish Folk School. They have three one-week sessions, one each month in the summer. I lead the singing for the week in August.”
Another member of St. Peder’s Lutheran, Lisa Jensen, is the song leader during July. Of Rita Juhl, Jensen says, “Her song leading is enhanced by her personality. She is affirming, supportive, upbeat, appreciative, and warm. People just love her [as a song leader].”
Jensen marvels at Juhl’s youthful spirit. “She’ll be 80 years old in June, but she doesn’t seem old to me.”
And then there is the public school side of Rita. One of her former piano students, a St. Peder’s Church member, Kathy Thomsen, persuaded the long-time parish organist to join her in a labor of love. “Hancock Elementary School is across the street from Hamline University in St. Paul, where I’m a music professor,” Thomsen explains. “Budget constraints caused them to gut the music program. I thought we should be offering something for these kids, so I volunteered to teach music to second graders, free of charge, one day a week. I convinced Rita to take the first graders. She jumped right in.”

Dick and Rita Juhl stand in front of a sculpture designed by their son-in-law in St. Peder’s Lutheran Church’s courtyard. Rita has been organist at St. Peder’s for 60 years. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Songs in many tongues

The classroom teachers at this ethnically diverse school are thrilled to be getting some of their music program back. And Rita is happy to get back into doing what she was teaching others to do when she was on faculty at the University of Minnesota — instructing music education majors in the art of teaching music in public school.
“Rita’s the principal reason I became a music professional,” says Thomsen, who began taking piano lessons from Juhl at age ten. “She’s a marvelous musician. She has perfect pitch.”
She also has a natural rapport with young people. “I can’t tell you the joy I get from teaching these kids,” she says. Her students are ethnically diverse. Seventy percent of the children don’t speak English at home. Their backgrounds include Somali, Hispanic, Arabian, and Vietnamese.
“These kids are wonderful,” Rita says. “They love music. Sometimes when they see me, I get mobbed. Six or eight of them will try giving me hugs at the same time.”
Rita uses music from the children’s various ethnic traditions. When she meets with her first-graders, the sessions begin with what she calls “a hello song.” She says she and the students have also written a “goodbye song” that has a jazzy style to it. “We sing goodbye in all the different languages,” she explains.

Because sharps and flats don’t feed the world

In addition to the music that occupies so much of her time, Rita Juhl has something else going. When she became aware, decades ago, that too many people in the world eat nothing but rice and are seriously undernourished, she decided to do something simple, practical and effective about it.
She proposed to her family that they eat a meal of nothing but rice, once a month. The money a “normal” evening meal would have cost was donated to a world hunger project. Did her four children rebel? “Not at all. They thought it was fun.” Over the 50 years since her family started that practice, the idea has spread. Members of St. Peder’s picked it up, donating thousands of dollars to ELCA World Hunger and other similar causes.

St. Peder’s Lutheran Church, originally a Danish congregation, still has an occasional worship service in the native language. Metro Lutheran photo: Bob Hulteen

Juhl proposed to her family that they eat a meal of nothing but rice, once a month.

“We started a website — — in the year 2000. It has had ‘hits’ from 23 different countries. Churches, Rotary clubs, college fraternities, all sorts of groups have tried it.” It’s important to educate children about the issue, and get them thinking — and doing something — about it, she is convinced.
Rita and her husband have recently moved to Becketwood, a retirement center on the Mississippi River just blocks from St. Peder’s Church. She still plays for Sunday worship, but admits she probably will have to give it up one of these next years.
“Almost every night I pray, ‘God, tell me when it’s time to let go.’ Because I love organ playing so much, I don’t want to outlast my skill.”
Whenever that happens, Rita Juhl’s musical gift will be missed at St. Peder’s. Until then, the music keeps flowing and the beat goes on — with a Danish accent.

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