Cathedral reaches outside the mainstream
Rev. Mark Mohr, the dreadlocked 33-year-old white singer of the reggae band Christafari, claps his hands in ecstatic appreciation as his Trinidadian wife, Avion Blackman-Mohr, wearing a peasant shirt, sings sweetly a song of praise called ‘“I Love You, Father,’” accompanying herself on acoustic guitar.
When the song ends Mohr reclaims the microphone and exclaims: ‘“I could worship all night to that song.’” He adds: ‘“Let’s keep it in the worship mode. God can be your refuge because God is so much greater than you and your problems.’”
‘“Right,’” murmurs a woman from back in the sanctuary, a modern hexagon-shaped auditorium with comfortable stuffed seats and fine wood paneling spiraling up to a peak in the center.
‘“Glory, yes,’” says another.
A heavyset twenty-something Latina snaps a picture of Mohr with a camera phone as Christafari chugs into ‘“Higher Warrior,’” a song whose lyrics borrow liberally from Bob Marley’s ‘“Get Up, Stand Up.’”
A pregnant woman sways as if hypnotized, hands extended in supplication. A small boy crab walks through the heaving crowd; another break-dances. A young black man stabs his finger in the air to the beat, and then swoops and pivots with both arms extended, birdlike. The interracial audience also includes smiling high school girls facing the stage, and earnest-looking young men with dreadlocks nodding their heads seriously.
Praise and worship. Each in their own way.
Christafari is an improbable band, a multiracial reggae group that makes music dedicated to Jesus. The assortment of worshipers likewise seems plucked from the broad stream of humanity. But then the Cathedral of His Glory, a non-denominational Protestant congregation of the charismatic kind in Greensboro’s northern suburbs, is also a somewhat improbable spiritual community.
Rev. Dennis Willis, an associate pastor at the church, who tonight is wearing a flowery casual shirt, estimates the church is 55 percent white and 45 percent black. Spanish-speaking congregants can hear a real-time translation of Sunday morning services through headphones. The Cathedral of His Glory once had a Spanish-language service that drew about 200 people, but the preacher took the congregation and started his own church, Willis says.
The Cathedral of His Glory is known for welcoming all kinds of expressions of worship as well as people of all walks of life.
‘“If you want to yell and scream, you can,’” says Rachel McCoy, a good-natured 16-year old who started attending Sunday morning services and the Wednesday night youth group after a friend brought her along to one of the Sunday night concerts. ‘“It’s an intense worship.’”
Her friend, 13-year-old Gracie Lepko, adds: ‘“There’s this guy who gets up and runs around the sanctuary during the Sunday morning services. But you can just sit back and listen if you want.’”
For Willis, the important evangelizing takes place during the ‘Sunday@7’ concerts, which, as the title indicates, take place every Sunday evening at 7 p.m. Through the concerts, the church is fishing for souls amongst a generation of rebellious, angry teenagers whose parents may not regularly attend religious services.
Reggae is not the norm for this series. Neither are mainstream Christian rock acts like Newsboys that favor an adult contemporary sound.
Willis is most interested in the edgier recording artists on the national Christian music circuit, bands such as the hard-rock Seventh Day Slumber, pop punkers Kids in the Way and the angst rock of Calls From Home.
Another is Day of Fire, a group fronted by Josh Brown. The singer abandoned an earlier band called Full Devil Jacket that opened for Creed after he found God in the smoldering aftermath of a heroin overdose.
‘“A lot of the alternative stuff, they just don’t know it,’” Willis says of the church’s target audience. ‘“And yet they listen to the secular version of it. We’re trying to reach a segment of the kids who are not in mainstream Christianity.’”
The Cathedral of His Glory’s board of advisors opposed the Sunday@7 concerts when the idea was proposed more than a year and a half ago. But the senior pastor, Rev. Paul Willis ‘— who is Dennis Willis’ father ‘— overruled them.
‘“He told ’em: ‘I’m not going to be ministering to a bunch of blue-haired old people,’” Dennis Willis recalls. ‘“So we purchased the lighting system and the video screen.’”
The church pays the bands from $500 to $1,500 for each performance from its annual budget, Willis says. Collections taken up in white plastic buckets offset some of the cost, but the church basically subsidizes the concerts as outreach ministry.
‘“How can I put a price on a soul?’” Willis asks. ‘“If all this money keeps somebody from going to hell I’m going to do it. To compete with what’s out there, it costs money to preach the gospel.’”
It’s hard to say how many souls are being saved tonight.
Charlie Dee, 26, the righteous bird dancer, is a big Christafari fan. He got in the car after morning services at the Seventh Day Adventist church he attends in Atlanta and drove all afternoon to Greensboro to see the band.
Damon James, 23, of Raleigh, who wears short brown dreads and a seashell necklace, learned about Christafari from his mother, who raised him on Bob Marley and serves as a youth leader at Lexington Community Church. A junglist, or DJ, he plays jungle, raga and dancehall music at raves and dance parties. He has since become disillusioned with the drug use and sexual promiscuity at raves and yearns to create a dance music subculture dedicated to Christian praise.
‘“If taken in a different direction it could be a church outside of church,’” he says. ‘“There’s a feeling of being on the same wavelength with other people when you’re praising together.’”
Drugs also played a role in Mark Mohr’s initiation into music. Likewise, his rejection of drugs coincided with his decision to give his life to Jesus.
‘“I got into reggae through marijuana, from vacationing in Jamaica,’” he says. ‘“I used to be a serious drug addict and a dealer.’”
He was trying to write reggae lyrics when his conversion took place. All the details are on the Christafari website, he says, but the essence of it is this: ‘“I had a mountaintop experience, and God told me to start the first Christian reggae band.’”
In the 15 years he has headed up this traveling ministry he has gone deep into both Caribbean music and the evangelical experience. He met his future wife, Avion Blackman, at a Christian conference in Trinidad. One of 24 children who grew up a remote rainforest area of the island, Blackman is the daughter of a man who underwent perhaps one of the most emblematic of conversion experiences.
Her father, Garfield Blackman, aka Lord Shorty, is widely acknowledged as the father of soca music, a Trinidadian dance music developed in the early 1960s that melded calypso and East Indian music. In the early 1980s he was reportedly so disillusioned that the music he invented was being used to ‘“celebrate the female bottom, rather than uplift the spirits of the people’” that he retreated with his family to the wilderness, renamed himself Ras Shorty I and invented jamoo, a fusion of reggae and gospel.
Mohr has incorporated the jamoo sound into his own music, along with the more modern dancehall genre, and the zany antics of Fishbone, a funk/ska band from his native Los Angeles, when he sings through a bullhorn.
Switching between a Jamaican patois and what sounds like an earnest Midwestern accent, he bridges the Caribbean praise and worship tradition ‘— which utilizes dance movements from New Testament themes ‘— to the more conventional expressions of North American Protestantism.
In the charismatic style, Mohr moves easily from frank conversation, as the throbbing reggae beat fades to the background, to fervent prayer.
‘“There’s going to be a pop quiz at the end of every person’s life,’” he says. ‘“It’s going to have two questions: who is your lord, and what did you do with your gifts?’” Growing more passionate, he tells the audience they will be rejected by the secular world and persecuted if they embrace Christ, that they will be like salmon swimming against the current.
‘“Who is your Lord?’” he asks them.
‘“Jesus,’” they shout in unison without hesitation.
‘“Do you want to go to heaven?’”
‘“Then say this prayer,’” he tells them, as they bow their heads and hold out their hands. ‘“Jesus, I realize that you died on the cross for my sins. Jesus, I have sinned. Come into my life.’”
Then after the final song, the audience members filter out of the sanctuary as Pastor Willis testifies after them: ‘“People come in here and their minds are blown. They say, ‘This is church?’ I didn’t know you could have this much fun. Folks, don’t forget to go by the merch table and buy a shirt or a CD.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org