God Save the Teens

Local Kids Seek a New Kind of Church Through Hardcore and Hip-Hop

Jay Bakker, prodigal son of Jim and Tammy Faye, has a call on the other line. It's his tattoo artist, phoning to talk to him about freshening up one of his carefully inked arms. Bakker's oft photographed snarl through his lip pierce has rendered him the it-boy popularizer of a long-burgeoning phenomenon: devil music for the Lord. "It used to be 'You're saved now, burn all your albums,' but that's changed," says Bakker. "Now we're refusing to do that. We're saying we'll make the music we want, but we'll make it to glorify God."

From hardcore punk to hip-hop, die-hard young Christians have turned to what were once the most heathen niches of pop culture to express their faith, minister to marginalized cohorts, and spiritually seduce new groupies. New York-area ensembles offer up heavy bass to the heavenly boss, in churches and clubs from the South Bronx to suburban Long Island, stopping off at mainstream

venues in between. Summertime is prime time for rocking and holy rolling: The Jersey shore will be dotted with shows all season long; Rapfest—the big local event for religious rapscallions—will be born again in August; and this weekend will see the annual punk and indie Cornerstone gathering resurrected on Long Island. "Now all over America you can go to, say, a hardcore festival, usually an atheist scene, and hear about Jesus and realize you don't have to give up everything," Bakker says. "You don't have to comb your hair and put on a suit. You can be all you are—tattoos and all—and God will accept you for that."

"This band right here is a product of Jesus Christ": Matt Koldinski and Legacy testify at River of Life Church.
photo: Justin Lane
"This band right here is a product of Jesus Christ": Matt Koldinski and Legacy testify at River of Life Church.

Just past Jericho Bagels, off Jerusalem Avenue in Hicksville, Long Island, the storefront River of Life Church is ground zero for Bakker's ethos. A metallic sticker that cautions, "WARNING: THIS PROPERTY IS PROTECTED BY JESUS CHRIST," greets musicians lugging guitar cases and drum kits through the glass front door. It's a Sunday afternoon, and this church hosted its regular buttoned-up service just hours before; now these shaved heads and goatees are preparing to shake the massive wooden cross off the mauve-painted back wall in their own deafening ministry. "The Beast," the band Solace's baby-shit-brown Econoline 150 van, pulls up plastered with stickers that declare, "Abortion Is Homicide" and "To Live Is Christ, to Die Is Gain." GOD is spelled out on the scratched back window in strips of duct tape.

Band leader Mike Hanley lumbers out, his doughy frame, oily dark hair, and huge computer-nerd glasses suggesting a D&D addict more than a hardcore drummer. "Yo, God bless, brother," he greets fellow punk ministers. "You ready to blow this place up?" Hanley has been listening to underground Christian hardcore since he was eight, when his brother brought home an album by the band Tourniquet. His pastor father cringed at the sound, but felt the message coming through once Hanley explained evangelical punk as a natural outgrowth of the genre's tradition. "Hardcore started as music with a message," he says. "You know, like vegan bands and straight-edge bands. And we feel we've got a stronger message than anyone else." Now 20, Hanley runs an occasional Christian punk club called the Black Room in Kingston, New York, in what was once the local gay bar.

As Hanley and his brethren set up amps and kits in the huge empty room, young punks stream steadily through the door. These devotees look like any other mosh-pit population. But the Gothic letters emblazoned on their ubiquitous black T-shirts spell out band names like Point of Recognition and Living Sacrifice. One popular tee declares, "I WOULD DIE TONIGHT FOR MY BELIEFS." Once the bands have settled in, Bill Meis, who was saved by his guitar long before he found Jesus, gathers band members together for prayer. Meis, of the band A Love for Enemies, is a tough-looking but genial fixture in this suburban scene, and he charismatically leads the preshow benediction in an adjacent storage room packed with strollers and cardboard boxes. The musicians press fingers against their temples or raise their tat-covered arms overhead as Meis bows his bald dome. "Please give us words tonight, Heavenly Father, so we can speak to the kids. Give us words that talk like daggers, Lord God, for these kids' hearts." In succession, each band member solemnly intones a lengthy meditation and Meis closes the service. "Amen. All right guys, LET'S ROCK THE HOUSE!"

A group called Legacy takes the makeshift stage in front of the garlanded wooden cross and kicks off a series of intense, brief jams, in which lead singer Matt Koldinski, in shut-eyed rapture, screams out continuously over feedback. A growing crowd slamdances before him on the maroon-carpeted floor, lit only by white Christmas lights. Legacy lays down the basic structure that each band will follow: unintelligible lyrics apparently expressing deep faith (this is true hardcore—you can occasionally pick out "Lord" or "God," if you're listening for it) and a break in the set for exhausted, panting testimony and outreach before the noise starts up again. "Both parts are ministry," says Koldinski, "for a missionary purpose." Drained and dreamy-eyed, Koldinski runs a hand through his thick, black hair and leans on his mic stand. "This band right here is a product of Jesus Christ," he preaches, making eye contact with the audience. "He loves all of us, no matter what. We'll never lose that love. And so I ask you, if you have any problems, come on up here, say, 'God loves me.' I don't care if you're a new Christian, a lifelong Christian, or not a Christian yet; it doesn't matter."

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