Urban J a mashup of holy, hip-hop
By Jeff Strickler
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
MINNEAPOLIS — Hearing the bass track thumping from Urban Jerusalem on a Saturday night, you easily might conclude that it's a nightclub. Inside, there's the crowded dance floor, pulsating strobe lights, break dancing, graffiti art, a DJ and rappers.
The building is not at all what it first seems. The Bibles on the chairs offer a hint, as does the cross behind the DJ. Or listen to the music's lyrics: "Think about why you step into this place. It's because it's filled with mercy and grace."
Urban Jerusalem — Urban J, as it's often called — is a hip-hop church. If the terms "hip-hop" and "church" seem contradictory to you, you're not alone. That's been a constant refrain for the church's husband-wife founders, Stacey and Tryenyse Jones, since Urban J opened in 2006.
"We hear that all the time: Can hip-hop be sacred?" Stacey Jones said. "My answer is yes, without a shadow of a doubt. Being reverent doesn't mean being boring."
Doubters are too quick to focus on the behavior of some high-profile hip-hop performers, he said, adding that hip-hop that comes from a Christian environment embraces godly attitudes.
"The music doesn't restrict the message," said Tryenyse Jones, who is recording a CD of her Christian hip-hop. "I've written a lot of hip-hop and rhythm and blues, all of it reflecting the message of Christ."
The couple launched the church to reach those younger people who are turned off by traditional worship services.
"We're trying to tap into the Gen X and millennial generation that hungers for more spirituality but doesn't feel comfortable in a regular church," Stacey Jones said. "Studies have shown that they are, by a wide margin, the most unchurched generation. We need something to grab their attention. Our vision is to present God in a relevant form, and for many young people, that means music."
Emmanuel Maggett, 17, an energetic dancer who stepped off the floor to catch his breath, found his niche there. "A traditional church doesn't allow you to express yourself," he said. "When God calls you to worship, he doesn't worry about stuff like how you dress. You can be yourself here."
For Stacey Jones, 35, and Tryenyse Jones, 38, hip-hop and religion always have coexisted in their lives.
"We both grew up in the hip-hop culture and the church world," Tryenyse Jones said. "I've been involved with hip-hop since I was a teenager, but I've been singing in church since I was 8."
Stacey Jones was pursuing a degree in pastoral leadership at Crown College in St. Bonifacius, Minn., when they met. "I think God brought us together," Tryenyse Jones said. "Here the two of us were, deeply immersed in the hip-hop culture but still loving God. It was a perfect fit."
Although the service is billed as starting at 7 p.m., it was 7:25 on Saturday before things got going.
Tryenyse Jones led the music, but shared the microphone with rappers who took turns coming forward. Among them was Iomos Marad, a professional singer who prefers to be called an emcee rather than a rapper.
"A rapper doesn't care what he talks about," he explained. "An emcee is somebody who speaks to the condition of the community."
Worshippers were free to react as they wished. Some simply stood, swaying to the music with their eyes closed and their arms waving gently overhead. Others, like Emmanuel and a dancer who asked to be identified by his break-dancing name, BBoy Abide, were in constant, high-energy motion.
When the music stopped after 90 minutes, Urban Jerusalem could have passed for any church. Office manager Heidi Govednik read the week's announcements, which included the birth of a baby, a Bible study class and a call for people interested in starting a fitness group. Then a member led a prayer.
Although he has been known to break into impromptu rap during his sermons, Stacey Jones delivered a straightforward message in which he admonished listeners to tune out people who put them down.
"Society tells us that people are going to love you for what you do, and if you don't accomplish enough, people won't love you," he said. "But God loves you because of who you are. God says, 'I created you in my image.' We are fearfully and wonderfully made."
The Joneses realize their church isn't going to appeal to everyone.
"My grandmother still hasn't come to a service," Tryenyse Jones said. "I've tried to explain what we we're doing, but she's from a denomination where it just doesn't work for her."
Grandma might not like the music, but she supports the mission.
"She told me that if we're reaching people that other churches can't reach, then it's OK with her," Tryenyse Jones said. "We're just trying to help spread the hope and the love."