Hip hop conveys spirit of survival at east-side church

by Jordan Green

With his back to the altar the hype man chastises the prim, upright gathering of African-American teenagers in the first four pews.

“Davishia told us there were some young people who know how to crunk,” says the hype man, John Richardson, who is also the manager of Forever About the Ministry and the Music. “Y’all sitting up here like you’re on life support. It doesn’t matter if you representing for Christ. That don’t mean you can’t crunk.”

Later he observes how the baby boomers towards the back of the sanctuary at Mannasseh Baptist Church lean wit’ it, rock wit’ it, first with arms extended, bouncing as if cruising in a slow ride, then with hands jabbing at the air as they hunch forward.

“This ridiculous,” Richardson says. “You got your moms and grand-moms getting more crunk. They working full-time jobs.”

Then the hype man rallies the gathered multitudes for one last song and directs their attention towards the MC, Quest-San, a 23-year-old Greensboro man dressed in a red bill cap and a loose-fitting gray T-shirt.

The backing track is classic Dirty South hip hop: mechanistic, brash and euphoric, and the vocals stay true to the cadence. The only difference is there’s no reference to thugging, booty or Escalades. “Jesus Christ is the greatest” is Quest-San’s declaration.

“Heyyyy!” calls Davishia Baldwin.

Her husband, the 30-year-old Rev. Eric Baldwin, lunges into the pews, boisterously throwing his arms around the young men’s shoulders. He jostles the teenage girls playfully. Male and female alike, they wilt at his touch, falling into the pews with looks of amused tolerance.

With the exception of Quest-San’s finale, the scene at Mannaseh Baptist Church on Saturday, Aug. 12 is pretty old-school. The white painted cinderblock church fronted with a brick facade is something of a fixture in this working-class mixed African-American and Hispanic neighborhood near the eastern edge of the city where rancheras are just as likely to emanate from modest mill houses as classic soul.

Two of the sanctuary’s six stained glass windows signify the church’s multifaceted roles as a vessel of survival and liberation, with one depicting Noah’s ark, and the other showing a muscular black man dressed in a loin cloth and straining at his chains with a ship anchored in the sea behind him.

In small ways, the church continues the journey with this “crunk for Christ” back-to-school event. Preceding the hip-hop performance the children between the ages of 7 and 14 attend a workshop on good study habits. Those 15 years and older sit through a sex education workshop. At the end of the day’s festivities, they will also receive free school supplies.

Founded in the mid-1990s, Mannasseh Baptist Church is undergoing a transition, struggling to maintain relevancy, and trying to attract new members, including the Hispanic newcomers. Having come from Durham in late 2004 to take over leadership of the church, the Baldwins are still relatively new. They insist that Jesus wants to meet his flock, particularly the young people, where they are.

“Crunk comes from a hip-hop term for hyped up, excited, but for Christ, not for some of these other things like sex, weed and money,” the Rev. Baldwin says. “The Bible says, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all the other things will be added to you.'”

To that end, Monica Brown, a 33-year old member of the church and a health educator with the Forsyth County Department of Public Health, leads the sexual education workshop. She urges the dozen or so teenagers in the small room to remain abstinent until marriage, but if they choose to have sex to use condoms. It’s clear that many of them are sexually active.

“There are more sexually transmitted diseases in the Southern United States than any other region of the United States,” she says. “Why? That’s because of the poverty rate.”

They discuss what happens when young men and women tell each other they’re not ready for sex.

“No more relationship for you,” one of the girls says, elbowing her friend in the corner of the room where the females are seated. Dennis White, a 19-year old rising freshman planning to study marketing at NC A&T University who is seated with the males, raises another perspective.

“This is very ironic,” he says. “I told my girlfriend I’m taking a vow of celibacy, and my girlfriend was not having it. She was not happy.”

After running through a quick slide presentation that includes grotesque photos of genitals disfigured by open sores, and lecturing on the travails of HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea and a host of other unwanted diseases, Brown makes her case for what constitutes healthy and appropriate sex.

“Look, I know not everybody’s going to get married, but everybody can have a committed relationship some time in their lives,” she says. “That means you are singing from the same sheet of music. You’re gonna work through the tough stuff.”

In spite of the Rev. Baldwin’s ideas about grafting late-era hip hop onto the church’s style of praise and worship, the scene resembles practically any African-American community gathering in the South in the past three decades. There are people gathered under a long, tin-roofed shed beside the church eating hot dogs topped with coleslaw, chopped raw onion and chili, as well as pizza and snow cones.

A karaoke machine is set up at the end of the shed, and a handful of the baby boomers sing soul classics, including an O’Jays song: “People all over the world, join hands, start a love train, love train’…. Tell all the folks in Egypt, and Israel too/ Please don’t miss this train at the station/ ‘Cause if you miss it, I feel sorry, sorry for you’….”

Deacon Kenneth Mullins, a lineman with Duke Energy, pulls his pickup truck to the side of the shed before the hip-hop concert begins, and with the help of the young men, loads up the folding tables and metal chairs. By the time he drives around the fellowship hall, they’ve scattered.

He yells at them to come on and help unload, and asks Jose Montes for a hand as well. Montes steps around the corner of the church and waves his arms, hollering in Spanish for his young sons to come around to the front so he can keep an eye on them.

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