Samantha stepped up to the 55-gallon oil drum at Westchester United Methodist Church in the Bronx, New York, eager to produce a melodic tune that would both glorify God and stir the souls of the congregation. It had been a long time in the making as Samantha had struggled to secure the self-confidence she needed to join a band and play in front of an audience.
Congregation members Roy Gomes and Samuel Shaw trained Samantha to help her overcome her insecurities. It’s something they’ve done for many youth since 2003, when the Bronx Steel Drum ministry originated.
The band—Steel Pan—which performs two Sundays a month, currently has 12 members, ranging in age from 7 to 19. While they play all genres of music, including reggae and rhythm and blues, they also perform traditional hymns like “How Great Thou Art,” but with special arrangements to spice it up.
Gomes, a native of the West Indies, has been playing the pan for more than 50 years. He started when he was 13 years old to “keep himself out of trouble.” Now he teaches students, free of charge, so that they, too, can focus on a positive activity.
“This is my way of giving back,” says Gomes. “Because if these kids are in here practicing on the weekends, that means they’re not out on the streets finding trouble. This music ministry keeps them grounded.”
In total, 28 different cultures are represented in the church, whose average weekly attendance is 185. According to Gordon A.R. Edwards, pastor at Westchester United Methodist, the Steel Pan has helped the church grow by using music to span cultures, races and generations.
“When the band plays, everybody dances, claps and lets loose,” says Gomes. “Music is an international language that everyone can understand, embrace and enjoy.”