A Joyful Sound: How a worship band is using music to build bridges between communities

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

Vince Lujan (left) and Manuel Bravo make up the bilingual worship band Jesus Team A (Jesús Te Ama in Spanish). (NTC photo / Adrean Indolos)

PILOT POINT — Ask Vince Lujan what sparked his interest in music and he travels back in time to a peewee football field in Spring, Texas. Though small for his age, Lujan loved living out his gridiron fantasy with the other 10-year-old neighborhood boys. One bad tackle changed everything.

“I got hurt and my mother decided that was enough of football,” said the 36-year-old remembering his disappointment.

Instead of running around a practice field, Lujan spent his afternoons at the music studio where his mom took piano lessons. Surrounded by the sound of different instruments, something finally caught his attention.

“I was walking down the corridor and heard a guitarist playing,” he continued. “I watched him and thought, ‘Wow, I want to do that.’”

Years later and now an accomplished musician, Lujan is leader of two bands — the Vince Lujan Project and Jesus Team A, a bilingual praise and worship band he co-founded with Manuel Bravo. The latter has performed locally at Shepherd’s Cafe, DCYC, the Dallas Ministry Conference, and the Catholic Underground in New York and Los Angeles.

“The members of Jesus Team A come from different experiences and backgrounds to make beautiful music together,” he said, describing the group’s dynamics. “We make a joyful sound and, hopefully, a beautiful sound that can connect with people.”

Lujan credits much of his musical success and spiritual formation to a turning point in his life. After the music studio where he took lessons closed, the burgeoning guitarist turned to the music ministry at his parish as an outlet. Folk Masses were popular in the 1980s and Lujan — then in his early teens — tried to jam with church musicians but “I didn’t want to just strum along,” he admitted, “and I didn’t feel welcome.”

Influenced by rock and roll legends like Fats Domino, Ritchie Valens, and Chuck Berry he listened to on an “oldies” radio station, the teenager was eager to imitate more nuanced styles and complicated riffs. He found musical guidance in an unlikely place — a Spanish Mass at St. Anne Church in Tomball, Texas.

“We spoke English at home so going to a Spanish Mass was a big culture shock to me,” he said looking back on the experience. “But there were guitars and a lot of rhythms and different styles for me to sink my teeth into. Experiencing different melodies was exciting.”

Sarah Swonke, director of the Spanish choir at St. Anne, had the foresight to pair Lujan with Señor Pascual, an older member of the music group.

Vince Lujan leads a praise and worship session at a church in Denton. (NTC photo / Adrean Indolos)


“He didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much Spanish, but we spoke guitar,” Lujan said, praising his late mentor’s ability to teach him new chords during rehearsals. “He took an interest in my skill and ability and wanted to help. I was really grateful for that.”

Swonke, who became the young guitarist’s Confirmation sponsor and considers herself his madrina or godmother, recognized Lujan’s innate ability to compose and perform.

“Music is in his heart and soul,” added the 86-year-old who still serves as her parish’s cantor. “He was a natural.”

Along with encouraging his musical talent, Swonke also instilled in her young protégé an appreciation for social justice outreach. As president of the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society, she regularly involved choir members in ministering to the poor.

“I would go along with her to drop off food or clothes to families she knew in the area who needed it,” Lujan recalled. “It wasn’t about saving the world. She had a relationship with these people and it was very much about community, faith, and family.”

Watching her build bridges of care and concern between people impressed the cradle Catholic and would later have an effect on his music. Eventually, college brought Lujan to Denton where he studied jazz and guitar performance at the University of North Texas and began attending Immaculate Conception Church. Another UNT student, Manuel Bravo, was a member of the parish’s Spanish music group and the two men — despite language difficulties — became fast friends.

“Manuel is from Mexico and comes from humble beginnings,” Lujan said, recalling their early friendship when he spoke English and Manuel primarily Spanish. “He is a songwriter, poet, and very spiritual guy. I really loved his music.”

While in college, the two musicians would stay up all night jamming together. Eventually they toyed with the idea of forming a band and recording original compositions.

They chose the name Jesus Team A which becomes Jesús Te Ama, “Jesus loves you” in Spanish by simply capitalizing different letters.

“We want to build bridges between communities so people could connect like we did and we wanted music to be part of that,” explained Lujan, who is also an experienced youth minister.

Bilingual lyrics became part of the group’s calling card.

“It bridges that gap between the English and Spanish speaking people so we can experience Christ in and through each other,” the bandleader continued. “That’s what we’re called to do — be church to each other.”

Jesus Team A offers an eclectic mix of sounds from high-energy tunes used for youth gatherings to more solemn hymns appropriate for liturgy and Adoration. The band is currently raising funds to produce its first full-length album of material.

Never has the band’s message of unity been more important, Lujan suggests.

“In this current divisive climate, we are all going to have to figure out how to live together and build bridges to different cultural, language, and economic communities,” he said.

Everyone has a need to be loved, welcomed, and accepted.

“Our hope, as music ministers, is to use our gifts in ways that will fill that need and hunger,” the guitarist added. “We want people to experience Christ in each other through song.”

 

PILOT POINT — Ask Vince Lujan what sparked his interest in music and he travels back in time to a peewee football field in Spring, Texas.

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