By Marilyn Miller
Ask Helen Nelson to talk about her life and music, and the conversation will always turn back to someone else. Everything starts, of course, with her mother, who loved piano and encouraged her daughter to learn to play at an early age.
Then her music teacher at Bernice Junior High School thought it was his responsibility to prepare students for ministering through music, and he taught his pupils to play both the piano and the organ. And this led the Ruston native to her first job — as piano teacher for the First Baptist Church in Bernice. She was only in high school at the time!
Helen pursued and earned BS and MS degrees, and a Plus 30, in Elementary Education from Louisiana Tech University. In 1989 she put her degrees to work and entered the classroom in Webster Parish, and in 1990, she signed on as organist/pianist for the First Baptist Church of Minden.
“I feel like God picks you up and puts you down where he needs you,” Helen said. “We were attending, (and I was playing for), another church, and we came to the decision that First Baptist Church was where we should be. I said at the time that I may never get to play again.”
That was 33½ years ago. Two jobs, and “it was all good,” she noted. She taught for 26 years before retiring, and on June 25, 2023, she will retire from her job as organist for FBC of Minden.
Has she seen many changes in Christian music over the past 50 years?
“Drastically, but slowly,” she affirmed. “A new music minister always comes in with his own changes. Your willingness to adapt to a new minister makes all the difference. And I have been at First Baptist through five ministers of music. They all brought change. And there is good in all of it. And change is good. I try to tell people that I grew up with contemporary church music because there have been new songs for as long as I’ve been around. Scotty (today’s Music Minister) does a good job of revitalizing old songs with new songs.
“I will definitely miss working with Scotty and Rachel (Chapman). She fell in here at the ideal time.”
“The people here are totally amazing and supportive,” she said of the congregants, and other musicians. She lovingly recalls the late Patsy Grafton (who played piano for FBC for 57 years, and who she played with for 25 of those years. “There are many days when I wish I could just call her up and talk to her,” she said of Mrs. Grafton. She also recalls Alicia DuBose, who told her that “music is part of our DNA.”
Helen has made many memories over the years. She remembers choir members, some who have been singing for First Baptist Church for 50 years, like Paul Kitchens, and his sister-in-law, Roberta Kitchens, and Trudy Bishop. She remembers great soloists through the years. “I love to watch rehearsals,” she admitted. “I remember the Instrumental Christmas Programs, Christmas Plays, weddings, even funerals…I’ll remember the orchestra, the accompanists, the choir, the music minister. I’ve only had a supporting role in all of this.”
She will continue to play for the Senior Adult Choir, which sings once a month at a worship service, and has a nursing home ministry. Retiring, however, will give her more time to spend with her family. She and her husband, Glen, have two daughters. Mark and Sara Chreene and Connor, 4, live nearby in Minden, while Jeffrey and Anna Downs and Logan, 14, live in Tyler, TX.
On June 25 (a Sunday) there will be a reception in Helen’s honor at noon in the Commons area of First Baptist Church. Is she looking forward to the recognition?
“It’s not about me, it’s a service…it’s a calling,” Helen said. “God gave me what I needed to fulfill that calling.” She also believes that God will give her another purpose.
But now it’s time to sit by her husband in Sunday School and at worship service. “It’s time,” she reiterated.
“But if you need me, I’m here.”