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On Easter Sunday, outside the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission, cars plastered with kelly-green JESUS stickers line Delmar Boulevard. Inside the arts center, the thump-thump-thump of hip-hop is already raising the roof.
Church hasn't started yet, but the Belleville DJ known as "DJ G" has sweat beading on his balding forehead. He's queuing beats for the Sunday celebration, while Pastor Dietra Wise and her dance group rehearse the morning's number. "No secular beats," explains DJ G. "Only contemporary gospel. But — there's going to be some ha-a-a-rd beats."
Soon, the parishioners of Liberation Christian Church will amble in for "Soul Force," which takes place the second Sunday of each month and bills itself as St. Louis' only Sunday-morning hip-hop worship service. Pastor Dietra, as she likes to be called, launched the concept one year ago. The church's slogan: "Undividing the Most Divided Hour in America."
"Hip-hop culture has a creative side and a cause side," asserts Pastor Dietra. "And it's not just black kids that like hip-hop. It's all kinds of people all over the world. Soul Force is about bringing those elements together. It's about not being so divided in worship."
Hip-hop-loving parishioners fill the pews in metropolitan churches across the country, from Tampa to Boston, New York to Los Angeles. The best known of all might be in the Midwest, at Sanctuary Covenant Church in North Minneapolis. That's where Rev. Efrem Smith rolled out his hip-hop service in 2003, filling up a 700-seat school auditorium. Smith and his congregants now meet in a school with seating for 1,100.
"We're finding a lot of religious discourse, spiritual conversations and quests occurring in hip-hop culture, in hip-hop churches and also in mainline churches," observes Ralph Watkins, assistant dean for African American Church Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and the author of From Jay-Z to Jesus. "Black churches, white churches, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, are all flirting with the expression of hip-hop culture in the context of worship."
The movement is not without its haters — those who believe hip-hop culture glorifies violence and sanctifies sex, drugs and bling. The most vocal may be G. Craige Lewis, founder of the EX Ministries in Dallas, who packs halls all over the country and preaches that hip-hop is the Devil's handiwork.
"We went through this with gospel music," says Watkins. "Think of Thomas Dorsey, a blues player for Ma Rainey, who brought gospel into the church. Then we went through it with the [Edwin] Hawkins Singers and the 'Oh Happy Day' song that went secular and was also a Christian song. In the black church we have these ebbs and flows of change in our traditions."
Liberation Church's Pastor Dietra says she sampled numerous church congregations in St. Louis, finding most to be "pretty conservative."
Traditional black churches "weren't as community-oriented as I wanted to see," Dietra says. In west county, she found "incredible worship experiences with thousands of people." But it was a model of Christianity that she likens to McDonald's, "where you drive in Sunday morning for your burger and don't come back all week."
Pastor Dietra says she'd discovered in the southern reaches of St. Louis a number of progressive congregations "that really care about social justice," but without "a younger person or a black person in sight."
Dietra, 34, hails from New York and moved to St. Louis a decade ago, while serving in the U.S. Air Force. She left the military to obtain a divinity degree from Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves; then she took up work as a chaplain in the St. Louis County juvenile detention system. She began planning Liberation Church in October 2007, envisioning a place that would welcome the rich and poor, blacks and whites, gays and lesbians. She recruits members though Facebook and MySpace.
At Soul Force on Easter, the rhythmic hallmarks of hip-hop culture are very much on display for the nearly 50 attendees, but the message is clearly one of salvation. Worship begins with a performance of "I Got Hope" by Point 5, a biracial 23-year-old Christian rapper. ("Say I can/Achieve anything because I am/Believing in the King, He is I am/And He is there for me/Matter of fact He gave me three things/They are faith, love and hope/Hope, hope, hope...")
Point 5 says he used to rhyme about more heathen themes. "I signed a record deal in 2004, and got into all the money, drugs, girls, constant partying. I wasn't happy with what I became, started searching for answers, and when I came to know Jesus Christ my whole life turned around. I've been doing it [singing] for Him ever since."
Pastor Dietra and her dance troupe perform the "Resurrection dance," a fast-moving hip-hop number to "He's Alive" by Tonex. ("Go ahead whip me on the three-nine/Look into my eyes/You could never kill me, I was murdered willingly/I could've called ten thou'/To come and bail me out/But I took it like a champ, grave can't hold me down/Now I'm invincible.")
After a rally cry and reading, 28-year-old Zevanya Gardner-Perry grabs the mic. "I was a stripper, a whore, a prostitute seven years ago," she yells, before recounting how God met her at a Gravois Road AutoZone one day when her brakes failed on her way to work. The Lord proceeded to apply her "spiritual brakes," as Gardner-Perry puts it. She quit stripping and started a street ministry.
Before singing "Free Indeed" to gospel and techno beats, Gardner-Perry announces, "I have it on sale here for $5! It's going to sow a seed!"
Different performers visit Soul Force each month. Communion, tithing and a sermon round out the morning inside the arts center, which Pastor Dietra and early Liberation members found by walking the Loop and praying at different sites. The building offered a modern setting, with soaring ivory walls, lots of spot-lighting and the cheapest price. The studio space seats 80.
Says Pastor Dietra: "We'll be there till we outgrow it."