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God Save the Teens

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

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."

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."  

"To me this is church; to all of our friends this is church," says Now or Never's lead singer, Kevin Murray. "This is heartfelt, straight from the heart to God. It's a worship state for us. Religion is too organized, and I don't think our God is a God of religion." Murray's suspicion of institutionalized religion forms the backbone of this scene, and often of his generation's response to Christianity. "This allows them to tap into popular discontent with institutions," says Randall Balmer, Barnard religion professor and author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. "They can say, 'I'm religious, but what it does for me isn't going to a church and listening to some desiccated preacher. What it does for me is allow me to get into it through blow-your-doors-off music.' " Many theologians agree that this is a new and viable form of church. "Anytime Christians gather to worship, church is happening," says Tom Beaudoin, who writes about Gen X Christianity in his book Virtual Faith. "What all this offers is exactly what the church doesn't offer, and that's a much more intimate contact with the trials and symbols of youth culture, which most institutional churches try hard to distance themselves from."

In fact, that this specific event is held in a traditional house of worship can be frustrating. While some musicians, like Solace's Hanley, are happy to keep faith-based punk within their holy circle, many would prefer to play secular establishments, as thrashing with the converted does little to spread the Word. "We're here to evangelize, and that's the reason I don't like playing churches," Murray says. "The kids who show up to see a show at a church are usually Christian. We want to go out and preach to everyone." Punk preaching's effect is evident on band Web sites, where some fans describe their moment of salvation the way most testify to favorite album tracks. "It makes sense," says Kenda Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary. "A huge percentage of people say they never experience God in church."

But in the South Bronx, one place of worship is attempting to unify the beat and the Bible. Salem Church, a converted synagogue in one of the city's toughest 'hoods, is home to the East Coast's longest-running house of heavenly hip-hop. "It's rap, yeah, but the message can't be convoluted with the traditional 'yes yes y'all,' " says Mike Bocachica, who has been running the show here with his brother Bert for 10 years. "But still, you gotta have a good hook to catch the people." In 1990, parishioners asked Bert to come in off the corner, where he was freestyling, to rap during a service about his faith. And so the Bocachica brothers introduced Christian hip-hop as the centerpiece of a monthly coffeehouse, which has extended to Rapfest—which hosts a new group of poor righteous teachers in a revival tent in the church parking lot every summer.

The coffeehouse itself is a well-lit white square loaded with tens of thousands of dollars' worth of audio engineering equipment in place of holy icons. Aside from a small tapestry that hangs far from the stage—and the plain fact that this room is in a church basement—there is nothing outwardly Christian about it. That's the point to the Bocachicas: In their "club," they want to confine benediction to the big beat. As in the Christian punk scene, it's not the institutional trappings but the music that matters. "It's the only way we can get the Word out. You know, bring your unsaved, un-Christian rap-heads to this church to listen to some great rap music," says Brother Bert. "And people are definitely getting saved. We know this through the altar calls, the testimonies of people who come to church and say that they've made the decision in their heart to accept the Lord [while] listening to some hip-hop at a coffeehouse."

Tonight, in this stark canvas of a room, the lyrics of tonight's performer splash like blood-red paint on a religious tableau. Vizunari—a probation officer named Marvin Parsons by day and a deeply ambitious religious rapper by night—is the featured artist. "Jesus Christ up in the house," he cheerfully greets his congregation, who sit expectantly on folding chairs around large round tables. Vizunari resembles a fresh-faced Jeffrey Osborne dressed in baggy jeans and Timberlands—at least until his Wu Tang-style beats hit and his nice-guy visage hardens into the mask of an aggressive prophet. His lyrics are as clear and aware as his faith. "Call me fanatic, it's the lifestyle I choose," he raps, repeating his mantra: "I'm out here for you, Lord, not for the dough/keeping it ministry, not for the show." But regardless of the lyrics' clarity, Randall Balmer says the medium is the Lord. "It's cool because we're doing hip-hop; see, that's the message. And like with punk or whatever, there's something subversive about it, whether or not you get the lyrics. Slipping in 'the real gospel' has a wolf-in-sheep's-clothing feel."  

Vizunari's patly articulated mission, "to motivate people to desire to know their creator" through hip-hop, has met a different kind of resistance within both this church community and the larger Christian music scene. No matter how "fanatic" these lyrics may appear, the medium disturbs many who form the church's core—just as Mike Hanley's pastor-dad shivers when he hears the jackhammer of his son's riffs. "You'll find people who are traditionally anchored to their beliefs, and all hip-hop is of the devil, according to them," says Bert Bocachica. Vizunari points to Christian contemporary stations, which refuse to feature rap ministry in their playlists. "The hardest people to please, even harder than the mainstream, is Christian radio," he says. The format prefers feel-good music for suburban adults, ignoring the quivering masses ripe for spiritual conversion. Or as Kenda Dean says, "If you're feeling alienated and misunderstood, Amy Grant isn't going to cut it. It's the edgier forms like punk or rap that are going to speak to you." Vizunari is baffled by what he sees as an evangelical market severely lacking cultural wisdom. "Our goals and their goals should all be to win one soul at a time, and hip-hop is what all the kids are flocking to. But I'm not expecting to be on TRL any time soon, right?"

Meanwhile, MTV has featured a different brand of Christian music—the nouveau metal and ska sounds of blockbuster bands P.O.D. and MxPx—and is perhaps a more realistic dream for area Christian bands like New Jersey's Element 101, whose upbeat punk-pop lands them opening spots at the Bowery Ballroom. The secular scene is just what Element 101 have in their sights. Their Christianity is inherent in ambiguously religious lyrics (think Creed), and in the lifestyle of the band members, but that's where it ends. "Sure, we're Christians," says hipster-pompadoured guitarist Danny Papa, "but we feel very strongly about just playing rock music and being the best we can be at it. We're trying to tour with mainly secular bands. We just feel better that way."

While this scene may be what self-described "Jesus-freak punks" are aiming for, Element 101 resist the punk-preacher tag. "Some of my songs are about God, sure, but in a nondirect way; like, it will seem like I'm talking about a person, but it's really God," says singer and lyricist Crissie Verhagen, a poised, raven-haired pixie. "I think it's ministry, but I think this form is more of a benefit to people than straight-up preaching. Our Christianity has a huge overtone to everything we do, and our fans know that, but you have to be looking for it." The band's Web site message board is a testament to Verhagen's claims: It hosts an ongoing discussion between secular fans who just dig the songs and churchgoers exasperated with assertions that the music is about anything other than faith. "I get a lot of e-mails from people who say they've read through the lyrics and then accepted our beliefs," says Verhagen, whose only outward mark of belief is a slim tattooed band that spells out the name of her savior in neat cursive encircling her ankle. But at tonight's show, His name is far from the minds of this alterna-punk crowd. Vintage dresses and surf-punk shirts dominate the bobbing mass, most of which came here to see the secular headlining act.

According to Jay Bakker, that's all well in the eyes of the Lord. "Some people are trying to fill what Bono calls 'that God-shaped hole' with faith-based music, but many of us just want to rock out," he says. At Bakker's Revolution Ministry in Atlanta, his own monthly rock shows often draw as many unsaved bands—and fans—as Christian ones. As the scene develops in church spaces and mainstream clubs across the country, even followers of more traditional evangelism are converting to Christianity's latest incarnation. "Evangelicals' suspicion of the larger world in terms of these things is largely gone," says Randall Balmer. "They've eagerly come around to this rather shameless use of pop culture." Evangelism's notorious royal family is a case in point. "My dad, well, he's not like a big tattoo fan, but he realizes I'm reaching a group of people he couldn't reach before," says Bakker. "But my mom, she just loves my tattoos."


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