He goes by the name of Pastor Flo.
As he stood in the pulpit of the Hip-hop Sanctuary New Generation Church, all eyes were on him.
“They say we can’t have hip-hop and church,” said Flo, a lay preacher whose real name is Roosevelt Sargent. “I say this is real church. It’s just presented by and for the hip-hop community, but don’t get it wrong, this is a place of praise and worship.”
In the dimly lighted church, a chorus of agreement rang out.
Murals of the Last Supper dangled from the wall. A deejay scratching bass-booming, wall-thumping music worked from the pulpit. Churchgoers wore do-rags and New Era fitted hats, and clutched worn Bibles.
With traditional churches seeking ways to revitalize interest in worship -- particularly among the young -- the distance between hip-hop and religion is closing.
And although some churches in mainly urban areas of the U.S. devote portions of services roughly every month to hip-hop congregations, this Baptist church in Moreno Valley is one of the first to present its worship services in hip-hop terms.
“What this indicates is the fact that the black church recognizes that hip-hop has more of an appeal than religion to black youth,” said Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC and author of “The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop.” “It’s a case of them recognizing that their message is old and tired, and hip-hop gives them an opportunity to reach a new audience.”
The movement has been applauded by some as a means to draw in those who otherwise show no interest in religion. It has also been called a fad and a shallow take on Christianity.
Felix Roger Jones III, pastor of All People Unity Baptist Church in Redlands, says he has concerns about hip-hop-oriented churches based in large part on the mainstream segment that glorifies violence, street gangs, lavish lifestyles and misogynic views.
“My ears are up as to what individuals who call it hip-hop church are about,” he said. “It is a gimmick to an extent. Are you preaching from the word of God, are you disciplining people like Jesus did, or are you just trying to experiment with hip-hop?”
Flo, 33, says he has received plenty of e-mails and phone calls discounting his methodology.
“You already have rock ‘n’ roll Christianity, old-school Christianity, country Christianity,” he says. “How can there be all these different types of Christianity and no room for hip-hop Christianity? And these kids who go to church and sit in the back will only be there for so long. The next step is out the door.”
Flo used to be one of those kids out the door. He fathered his first child at 15, messed with gangs and saw three brothers and his father incarcerated for long periods. He moved from Portland, Ore., to the Inland Empire to escape the culture that had seduced him.
He has dabbled in the hip-hop church movement for more than a decade, after his former girlfriend’s grandmother asked him to read the Scriptures with her. He dreamed of starting the church last year, opened it in January and plans to open a branch in Compton soon.
More than 300 people packed the church’s grand opening. The event featured hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow, who tours the country establishing hip-hop churches. “We were messing with some fire codes that night,” Flo says.
After finishing the opening greeting on a recent Thursday night, Flo introduced Young Pro, born Santiago Abarca.
The 21-year-old Riverside artist travels from church to church performing and testifying about his faith.
The bass boomed. Walls vibrated. Hands swayed in the air.
“Don’t give me the runaround here,
“Don’t give me the runaround here,
“We praising the Son around here,
“My soldiers stay on post, we don’t run around here.”
Midway through the performance, seven teenagers sheepishly sauntered into the church. They hesitated before taking a seat in the back pew.
Flo led the congregation in prayer and three of the young people removed their baseball caps, two turned off cellphones, and all bowed their heads.
Flo discussed a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, in which the disciples are stuck on a boat during a storm and Jesus gives Peter the faith to walk on water.
“This is church, so we do read the Bible a little bit,” Flo said. “Now, the disciples were probably tripping when they saw him walking on water. The word doesn’t say that, but y’all know what I mean. What he was doing was training his disciples by faith, because that is what he does.”
Prayer was over. Heads rose. Hats snapped back onto heads.
Flo invited the congregation to come to the pulpit to rhyme expressions of their faith and dance to the booming bass.
The young people in the back first chatted among themselves and then solemnly approached the stage.
While other members of the congregation handled the microphone, the teenagers took turns krumping -- doing a highly energetic, jerky and expressive dance -- and a circle of onlookers quickly formed around them.
“We weren’t going to be doing anything but watching cartoons on TV,” said Alexander Pruitt, 19, who said his friends belonged to a krumping crew and learned about the church through the website MySpace. “We thought this was going to be a big event, like a party. We ended up being the party.”
The church emptied and the congregation spilled outside after another high-energy service.
“This isn’t an alternative to the traditional church,” said Diane Mooney, whose daughter, Cheris, and friend Amber Harrell-Tobey performed during the service. “But it does show that this type of generational transition is in the forefront.”
Flo stood at the door greeting performers and the congregation. “Hopefully, those kids will be back again,” he said. “We’ll take people in here instead of doing something else and being out on the streets. That is what we are here for.”