Reverend Timothy Holder, honorable 51-year-old white pastor of the South Bronx’s Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, would like it known that he came by both his hip-hop alias and his “beautiful bling cross” honorably. Both were presents. “Poppa T,” he declares proudly. “A gift from the rappers. That’s my street name. And I own it with all my heart.”
Poppa T’s been here four years now, after a distinguished career in D.C. politics (involved with “every losing campaign in the 1980s”) and five years in Alabama founding a Spanish-speaking parish. He deems the language barrier he faced there “instructive,” as now he’s attempting an even tougher translation: Introducing rappers to God, and his God-fearing congregation to the rappers they often fear for entirely different reasons. Trinity Episcopal’s HipHopEMass, a two-year-old experiment in imbuing a typical church service with streetwise vernacular and freestyle rappers, invades the South Bronx streets about once a month, when Poppa T and crew aren’t traveling the city—invading St. Paul’s, near the World Trade Center site, for a June hoedown—or fleeing the state entirely for outreach missions in Ohio or Texas. “The goal, my brother, is to pull people out of the church into the street, and people just on the street into the church,” Poppa T explains. “As the old Anglican priests said, ‘If you don’t have both, you have neither.’ ”
So the Sunday evening before the Fourth of July, Poppa T is literally standing in the street outside his parish at Trinity and 166th. A live funk band gently vamps in front of a makeshift altar, where brewing storm winds threaten to blow away the cloth covering the body and blood of Christ. A small crowd—one-third congregation, one-third curious walk-ups from the nearby housing projects, and one-third press—mills about. The band cedes control to a cadre of rappers dropping faith, not science, leading to quips like “Ain’t no party like a holy ghost party ’cause a holy ghost party don’t stop,” or “J-Kwon’s invited but nobody gettin’ tipsy.”
As cameramen frame arty shots of the housing projects looming all around us, the service proper begins with recitations from two texts not found in King James Version bibles: Martin Luther King and Tupac. The latter helped prompt Poppa T’s big epiphany. He’d gone to see Tupac Resurrection and found himself dumbstruck when ‘Pac declared himself a born thug who’d die a thug, and who’d speak for thugs because no one else would. “It stuck in my head but did not go to my heart,” Holder says now— but it did a short while later when an armed gunman triggered a lengthy hostage showdown on his block. Three NYPD sharpshooters took aim from inside the pastor’s home across the street. No one died but HipHopEMass was born. “For six and a half hours, I sat on my stairwell and contemplated: ‘I wonder if anyone has ever tried to speak with that thug?’ ” Holder recalls.
Two years later, he’s at the altar, in the street, trying. This largely involves telling familiar Bible stories but replacing words like “disciples” or “followers” with “homies” and “peeps.” Every prayer ends with a robust call-and-response: “Amen.” Word! “Amen.” Word! It’s cute. “My main concern was not to look cute,” Poppa T says. “It took me a good year. When I’m up at the altar, I look down at my white skin. And I would hear myself saying the word homies, and I would ask—and God would ask— ‘Are you real? Are you real?’ ”
He’s real. Real awkward, yeah: His willingness to look like a jovial dork is endearing to the skeptical and adorable to the already receptive. After one early HipHopEMass—the experiment began with a string of Friday night services in the summer of 2004—an elated little girl looked Poppa T in the eye and gave him a confidence boost: “Jesus is so real to have a hip-hop mass,” she gushed. “God just said, ‘Tim, it’s for real, and you’re for real, as long as you’ll just get over it,’ ” Poppa T recalls. “Get up there and be real. And if you can’t, don’t do it. So if I come to the word homies or peeps, and I’m not feeling it today, I don’t say it.”
He was definitely feeling it at St. Paul’s—the crowd of tourists flitting through the 9-11 memorials smiled warmly as Poppa T recounted the tale of Jesus breaking bread with his homies. And he’s certainly feeling it now on his home turf. Tim turns it over visiting Atlanta rapper Joseph Gable, who valiantly battles a skipping CD player while nicely meshing the Our Father to Outkast: “For thine is the kingdom/The power/And the glory/Forever/Forever-ever?/Forever-ever?”
Poppa T quietly insists that his peeps are rappers who happen to be Christian, not Christian rappers. His reaction to the latter category, often, is very polite revulsion. “It was like a very not good vanilla ice cream,” Tim recalls of early Christian-rap experiences. “And I love vanilla ice cream. I love chocolate ice cream.” He often trawls the streets of the Bronx for new blood, sometimes with TV cameras in tow, where you’ll find an MC who can deliver “the best rap on Acts 1 to 11 you’ve ever heard,” or another who shies away ’cause his rap today is a little too blue for the evening news. Whether you stress “Christian” or “rapper” isn’t really Poppa T’s business. As he sees it, “God is in us, or He/She ain’t.”
This philosophy, incidentally, is now literally gospel. The Hip Hop Prayer Book, a collaboration between Holder and around 100 rappers, poets, and scholars, is now available for $20 or so, spicing up the traditional sacraments (your confession is complete when the priest announces “It’s cool! God forgives you! It’s a done deal!”) and providing a “Hip Psalmody” wherein Bible verses get robust slang makeovers. “Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song” thus becomes “Let’s have some have some hype y’all/Let’s have some hoopla/God’s the truth y’all/He such a superstar.” A few big names like Kurtis Blow (who has also lent a hand at Harlem’s Greater Hood Memorial AME Zion Church, another site for churchly hip-hop experimentation) chipped in, but most of the Prayer Book‘s scholars are newly minted, inspired equally by Poppa T and his own personal hero, Kanye West.
Convincing skeptical rappers to embrace Jesus might actually be easier than convincing skeptical churchgoers to embrace the rappers. Poppa T’s original congregation of “150 beautiful, beautiful Caribbean moms and dads in their sixties, seventies, and eighties” first reacted to all this with a “receptivity ranging from no reception at all to great angst.” But pretty much everyone’s converted now. Prayer books are in the works. Plus a CD. Plus a documentary. Plus block parties like Sunday’s pre-Fourth soiree. Poppa T speed-reads through the breaking of the bread with Jesus’ peeps. It’s a nice scene as the assembled throng crowds in to take Communion. You walk right up to a blinged-out, beaming Poppa T and look into his eyes as he delivers it, while a TV camera looming right behind him stares into yours.