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Musical Mentors

Missionary provides free lessons — and instruments — to students.
Assemblies of God U.S. missionary associate James Duff Rowden started Musical Mentors in San Juan Capistrano, California, teaching instruments to kids in need for free.

Rowden, 67, has been in vocational ministry since the mid-1970s and now works with Church Mobilization. He started Musical Mentors in 2007 with his wife, Bonita, and fellow longtime minister Benjamin M. Kaufman, who also is a U.S. missionary.

Rowden, who attended the AG’s Northwest University, started ministering with Youth With A Mission, then became a pastor and worship leader at several churches in California. However, 15 years ago he sensed God challenging him to do more outreach outside of the church.

Serving mainly Christians, he wanted to reach people of other religions: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons. Rowden realized one commonality among people of various faiths is a desire for their kids to learn to play music.

He goes to places where kids already gather regularly, such as Boys and Girls clubs, and offers to start the Musical Mentors program there. Boys and Girls clubs have other programs for kids who need somewhere to go after school before their parents can pick them up. Many do not have music programs.

Rowden trains high school and college students to become assistant music teachers and mentors. He created a teaching curriculum that’s replicable and that kids learn quickly, which can be given to other organizations.

Most enrollees learn the ukulele, but they also can study guitar and piano. Musical Mentors students are able to earn ownership of their instrument. After completing 16 weeks of lessons, they may keep their ukuleles, celebrating with a recital for their parents.

Rowden says earning an instrument is an incentive for children to not quit lessons partway through. Churches have an opportunity to donate the ukuleles.

A previous student in California, Candice Cabezas, heard about the program through her local Boys and Girls Club at the age of 10. She’d never played an instrument before, but she appreciated music.

“I didn't have my own hobby and I was super jealous of kids who played soccer since they were 4 years old and had their passions figured out,” says Candice, now 17. “I knew I was into music, but I just didn't know where to start.”

Candice earned her ukulele after the first year, then continued lessons for the next two years, completing the beginners, intermediate, and advanced curricula.

She says Rowden fueled her love for music, which continues today. Now as a senior in high school, she plays four instruments: guitar, piano, bass guitar, and ukulele. Candice wants to be a nurse, and is studying to work as an emergency medical technician, once she turns 18.

Candice says Musical Mentors helped her and other students through difficult times.

“Duff was a huge father figure in my life, and I really appreciate that,” she says.

Rowden says he can identify with kids who come from a rough background, and that’s what motivates him.

“I know what a difference it makes when a grown-up or teenager pays attention to a little kid,” Rowden says.

Musical Mentors also helps improve a student’s work ethic, increases their motivation to do well in school, and brings families together in support of their children.

Rowden has held the program in several locations at churches and community centers, including San Juan Capistrano, Santa Ana, and San Clemente in California, and Baton Rouge in Louisiana. When Rowden and his crew leave a location, the program may continue under different leadership.

The Rowdens recently relocated to Post Falls, Idaho, where they attend Northwest Family Church, an Assemblies of God congregation. The couple started a Musical Mentors program there and received two dozen ukuleles donated from the congregation. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they currently teach classes remotely over Zoom.

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is a freelance journalist and artist. She is a graduate of Asbury University and lives near Chicago.