The Word on the Streets

Hip-hop Masses rock the Bronx
August 31, 2004

“My sistas and brothers, all my homies and peeps, stay up – keep your head up, holla back and go forth and tell it like it is.”

Thus Suffragan Bishop Catherine Roskam of the Diocese of New York, blessed the congregation of Trinity Church, Morrisania, Bronx, N.Y., and sent it out to spread the Word following a three-hour Hip Hop Mass. The service was part of Trinity’s pilot program to have “altar meet the street and bring hip hop back to its home in the South Bronx.”

This summer, the church offered a series of Friday night hip hop masses aimed at bringing the community together. The program, which the church hopes to continue, particularly attracted young people. About two-thirds of participants were younger than 18.

“I love working with kids, where I give them music and get to talk to them one-on-one in rehearsals,” said DJ Ol School Sam. “This is a new experience for all of us, and I can see the glow on kids.”

Noted the program’s dance co-captain, DeSean Wilson, aka “Alpo,” 21, “I feel I’m able to make a positive influence and keep the kids off the street. We’re having fun.”

Who will speak for the thugs?

The initiative behind the Hip Hop Mass came when the Rev. Timothy Holder, Trinity rector, saw the slain rapper Tupac Shakur’s movie Resurrection and was perturbed by Tupac’s question: “Who will speak for the thugs?”

Junior Warden and 40-year Trinity member Keith R. Warren said he was surprised but pleased when Holder raised this question to the vestry as it explored how to reach out to the neighborhood’s teens and young adults.

“The older members of our church are dying out. For our church to grow, we need to bring people in,” Warren said. “The kids look forward to Friday nights. We started offering food and fellowship, and now we’ve added hip hop.”

Trinity Church has a congregation of 150 on Sunday mornings, primarily made up of young people. “We needed to grow and open the doors,” Holder said.

Under Holder’s direction, a group of Bronx clergy and laity began meeting on Fridays to discuss their concerns. More than two dozen Episcopal, Lutheran, Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy and lay leaders participated in bringing the Masses to the South Bronx, with Roskam and the Rev. Lyndon Harris serving as spiritual advisers. The great prologue from the Gospel of John – “The Word was made flesh and dwelt in the ’hood” -- represented the theme of the Masses, held in June and July.

The Master Mix and Master Missal, written, adapted and performed by Trinity’s congregation members and others from the community, translated portions of the Book of Common Prayer into the language of hip hop. Co-Dance Captain Lamont, 20, from St. Paul’s Church in the Bronx, wrote a Pontifical Hip-Hop Blessing for the services.

Enthusiastic beginning

Vicar Bishop Don Taylor of the Diocese of New York delivered the first of those blessings at a program where 100 children danced in the streets, and residents from 22 neighboring high-rises surveyed the vibrant scene from their windows.

An early-July Mass featured Roskam, New York Assemblymen Ruben Diaz Jr. and Michael Benjamin, clergy, parishioners and others in the community rapping to the beat in celebration of the founders of hip hop. The event featured Kurtis Blow, the first rapper signed to a major label; Cool Clyde and Lightnin Lance, the first DJs to scratch on vinyl; Jeannine Otis, Rap Hall of Famer; Grandmaster Caz with the Cold Crush Brothers; Waterbed Kev of the Fantastic 5; and Rapper D. Cross.

Ten-year old Dante Merrill appreciated the presence of these “old-school” hip hop artists.

“The founders talking about the history of hip hop expanded for me what I thought hip hop was,” he said. He found a nonmusical message as well. “It gave me hope,” said Dante.

Cool Clyde agrees. “Hip hop is a positive way to escape violence,” he said.
Of course, as 5-year-old Kaitlyn Wiggins pointed out, it’s also fun. “The music wakes me up,” said Chenize Tongue, 13.

The service also is “livelier than what I usually see in church,” said Cheon Tongue, 17. “I can relate more to hip hop than regular church ’cause the music relates more to my life.”

Trinity Church expanded its hip hop programming to offer its first Hip Hop Vacation Bible School in July. More than 100 children, most younger than 13, enjoyed free food and activities including hip hop dancing, Psalm rapping, Beads not Bullets! (an activity involving making rosaries and learning how to pray them), basketball and a double-dutch contest.

In late August, the Trinity Hip Hop Mass will be celebrated at a boys’ detention center just outside Richmond, Va.

Holder said he hoped to continue holding the Masses. And other parishes throughout the Diocese of New York and elsewhere, including the Los Angeles, Alabama and Connecticut dioceses, have expressed interest in the Mass.

Roskam and Holder are pleased with the interest. “We want to sing the ‘new song’ of Jesus Christ in the vernacular and language of our younger generations,” said Holder. “We hope that the Trinity hip hop will serve as a model for other parishes and communities throughout the city and the church.”

For more information about the ministry, e-mail or call 718-542-1309.