Rapping out the Word

South Bronx rocks with Episcopal hop hop Masses
April 30, 2005

“Christ is back! Christ is back!”

The words, chanted by the congregation, increased with intensity in response to the exhortations of freestyle rapper “D.O.” (Defy the Odds), the main attraction at last month’s Hip Hop Mass at a 137-year-old Episcopal church in the South Bronx, N.Y.

The Toronto rapper bobbed and weaved through the congregation, shouting the message of hope and optimism of rap and hip hop culture, accompanied by musicians on a keyboard, drums and bass guitar.

“D.O. and all the rappers bless us with their talent and commitment given by God to lead the church in new ways into new days,” said the Rev. Timothy Holder, the 43-year-old founder of this nationally celebrated ministry.

It began as a Mass that filled the street last summer in front of Trinity Episcopal Church, situated among the towering buildings that low-income families call home. “From the time of our earliest working-group meetings, our goals remained simple and straightforward: It was to sing the new song of Jesus Christ in the vernacular – the language of the people – especially our younger generations,” said Holder. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt in the ’hood!”

As Holder groped for a way forward with his wardens and vestry and dared to think “outside the box,” very few could predict that he would bring the “Bread of Life,” as he describes it, to the streets of this neighborhood in which seven of out every 10 young black men will find their way to jail before turning 40.

Neither did Holder know at the time that a little street Mass on Trinity Avenue “for the kids” would reach far beyond Trinity’s parish community, with the lyrics stretching across the United States.

Message to the streets

From that series of weekly Friday night street services last June and July, HipHopEMass.org was conceived. “We welcome everybody,” said Holder. “That’s what the ‘E’ stands for in HipHopEMass.org. God loves everybody everywhere, excellently, and extravagantly for evermore!”

Since then, Holder and his musicians have taken the message beyond the residents of the South Bronx to ex-offenders in Harlem, juveniles incarcerated in a high-risk correction center in Virginia and young urban residents of Charlotte, N.C.

“Hip hop is hope,” Holder claims. “More than any social and community organization, more than most churches, synagogues or mosques, hip hop represents hope to generations of our young people in the Bronx, in New York and throughout the United States. A deaf ear to this reality is a closed heart and mind to our children and young people, their hopes, visions and dreams.”

Last January, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the nation’s oldest black organization, opened a regional convention in Hampton, Va., with a hip hop Mass, followed by two panel discussions with the priest, rappers and musicians.

And this year, the World Council of Churches has honored HipHopEMass.org with the “Blessed are the Peacemakers” award, recognizing it for “inspiring, courageous and faithful efforts to build a just a peaceful world.”

Conceived from violence

The hip hop Mass, whose rappers bring a message of God’s love and peace, actually started from street violence. In March 2004, a lone gunman trapped by police, barricaded himself just 30 yards from Trinity and held the destitute neighborhood hostage for six hours.

During that time, three police sharpshooters forced Holder to take refuge in a stairwell while they sought to end the stand-off from his guest bedroom. Before it was over, more than 100 rounds of ammunition were fired.

The following day, when Bishop Mark Sisk of the Diocese of New York called to inquire about his safety, Holder asked the bishop if the Episcopal church had a legitimate role in the South Bronx. “Is it legitimate to be baptizing 30, 40 and 50 children from the community who cannot even say the word ‘Episcopalian?” he asked. “Is it legitimate for me to invite former prisoners and their families to church, knowing that they might not be made to feel welcome?”

After a few moments of silence the answer came, Holder said: “The love of Jesus Christ is legitimate.” “If that’s what we’re preaching and living,” Holder said, “then we’re legitimate. If not, then we’re not.”

What Holder did not know at the time was that the Bronx and the 137-year-old church was at the epicenter of the founding of hip hop in the 1970s. Not until after last summer’s street Masses, he said, did he learn that Phat Joe was singing about Trinity Avenue.

“His mother and much of his family – Boricua (indigenous peoples from Puerto Rico) – were my neighbors, and had been all along. It took hip hop to get us out on the street to meet the people of our parish home.”

But hip hop in church also has doubters and critics, who said this kind of music does not belong in the church. Holder tries to allay their fears while at the same time telling his hip hop worshipers of the generosity of the church members to offer their building to them.

“Hip hop is a gift from God,” said Kurtis Blow, the King of Rap, first master of ceremonies and director of music for HipHopEMass. “Hip hop is a door to our youth, but not just to our young people. Hip hop is a door to the holy for all of us.”

Fifteen-year-old Ashley Guertin has attended several Masses since they resumed this year in February on the first Friday evening of the month.

“I like the band and the music,” she offered, shortly before she took the processional cross in hand and led the clergy and deacon to the altar to begin another hip hop Mass that commenced with the cry: “God is in the house!”

“Easter + Resurrection II” will be celebrated May 6 at Trinity, when Suffragan Bishop Catherine Roskam of the Diocese of New York will lead the ministry’s first baptisms. Doors open at 6 p.m. for all celebrations.