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Voicing His Faith

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

The pastor paces up and down the aisles of Jubilee Christian Center, shouting words from the Scriptures, casting out unclean spirits in his midst. Hundreds of arms reaching to the heavens sway as the rough, familiar voice rises, touching souls that yearn to be saved.

“Somebody here needs to be set free,” he tells them. “There’s somebody here who’s spiritually dead. I can feel it. Somebody shout hallelujah!”

“Hallelujah,” the faithful yell out.

With the same breath and body that rhymed and danced to the worldwide rap hit “Can’t Touch This,” M.C. Hammer is now preaching about God.

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Every Sunday night at 6, Hammer leads a dynamic hip-hop gospel prayer service at Jubilee Christian Center, one of the largest evangelical churches in Northern California. “Hammertime” draws curious kids, families and unchurched young people of all races with its straight-up message about God and life that honors the street credo of “keeping it real.”

Last Sunday night, as rain poured on the church roof, Hammer was at the pulpit with his Bible, directing those who were spiritually dead to awaken to Jesus. Dressed in simple black slacks and a red blazer without the flash and entourage he once was known for, Hammer worked the crowd for a different kind of celebration.

“Hammer wants to throw you a party tonight. Ain’t no party like the Holy Ghost party,” he said.

“Amen,” someone shouted from the back.

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“Hammer wants to throw you a party and you’re stifling the Holy Spirit! Come on, now! Why you holding up the party?”

The crowd of close to 500 faithful roared in laughter and applause.

In the early 1990s, Hammer, whose given name is Stanley Kirk Burrell, was on top of the world as a multi-platinum rap superstar with a Grammy award and an estimated annual income of $33 million. By 1996, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The Oakland-born entertainer had amassed debts of nearly $14 million and squandered his fortune on a $9-million mansion, 17 cars and a Boeing 727. He moved his wife, Stephanie, and four children to a new home in Tracy, Calif.

Hammer, now 37, had always been a Christian, often praising God in his songs and even securing his second-biggest hit with the soulful rap hymn “Pray.” But his fall from grace, combined with several other wake-up calls, including the death of his friend Tupac Shakur, triggered a rediscovery of faith, he says. In 1997, after what he describes as a visitation from Jesus, Hammer was ordained in the Church of God in Christ and set his life on a new course.

“Previously, being a prodigal son took me away from the relationship that I once knew. There came a point where I wanted to just get back home. Get back to the place . . . I once had in my relationship with Jesus,” Hammer said.

“Whether the bankruptcy played any role in my refocusing, that’s great. Hallelujah, I hope it did! But the most important part of what occurred to me was love, missing the love of God in the way that I had known it,” he said.

Last year, Hammer and Jubilee’s Pastor Dick Bernal began talking about starting a Sunday night service aimed at bringing the hip-hop generation to church. The service, for which Hammer is not paid, made its debut in September and has garnered a multicultural following of young and old from across California.

“He’s a natural. He brings in all kinds of people because he’s a celebrity and he’s also an evangelist,” said Bernal. “He was a casual Christian. Now, he’s committed. He’ll tell you himself. God had to take his money away to get his heart.”

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More people are beginning to take note. The Trinity Broadcasting Network, for example, is collaborating with Hammer on a new Christian talk show. The first program will be taped live from the church Sunday with Smokey Robinson as Hammer’s first guest. He also has a new album in production to be released on his label, Worldhit Music.

Lately, there seems to be renewed interest in religion and spirituality among the voices of the hip-hop generation--rappers. Besides Hammer’s example, rap legend Run of Run DMC was ordained as the Rev. Run and now preaches from Zoe Ministry in New York. Lauryn Hill, the hip-hop diva from New Jersey who snagged five Grammys last year, made her deep faith public when she used her acceptance speech to thank God and read a passage from the Bible. Other black artists such as Eryka Badu, Q-Tip and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony have also turned to religious narratives in their lyrics.

Some in the music industry attribute the trend to the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., which forced many young people to question their own mortality. But scholars who have studied the history of the black church see other reasons for the renaissance of religion among young African Americans. Youths struggling in the inner city have always leaned on religion in hard times as solace in a hostile world. But many felt uncomfortable in a traditional church that they said dictated and judged the way they should dress, walk and talk.

In her book, “Reviving the Spirit: A Generation of African Americans Goes Home to Church,” author Beverly Hall Lawrence traces how scores of young black professionals have begun rediscovering their roots by returning to God. Some return for purely spiritual reasons, others see a way to make pro-black political statements or to revive an institution for social change--one that is still controlled by blacks.

There was a time when Hammer went to church six days a week. When asked if he strayed as his fame rose, Hammer was blunt.

“Ran from! I ran from being a preacher! I didn’t want to be a preacher. I knew that once I became a preacher that I would be held to more responsibilities. I already had a burden to my community,” he said.

In his sermons, Hammer translates the Scriptures into a language of the street. Last Sunday, preaching from the Gospel of John, Hammer began strutting up and down the front of the church to demonstrate how Jesus might have acted when he performed the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead.

“Jesus was doing big thangs,” he said with a twang. “Jesus was walking around and he said, ‘Roll that stone out the way.’ That’s right. Jesus popped his collar.”

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Among those who have become converted by Hammer’s message is a group of students from nearby Santa Clara University who have become regulars at the Sunday night service. At first, said Matt Kelly, a sophomore at Santa Clara, he came for the obvious reason.

“People are star-struck at first because it’s Hammer. But then you keep coming. You realize he’s extremely knowledgeable about the Bible. It’s rewarding. He’s bringing us closer to God,” said Kelly.

Eric Bobadilla, a Catholic who traveled from Los Angeles, visited the Hammertime service for the first time last week, moved by curiosity.

“I was impressed with the way he moved around and talked to the crowd,” said Bobadilla. “Some people might say he’s just doing this for his image, but it’s obvious he’s doing it because of something deep inside.”


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