Sunday, 28 December 2008

"Wazzup, Jesus"

Publication: Gringo Grande
Date: Summer 2006
(Article published in Swedish)

The teenage choir inspired the church members to stand up and dance, their feet flying over the worn red carpeting. Reverend Stephen Pogue, the broad-shouldered former drug addict transformed into Harlem church leader, held up huge black head phones to his ear, spinning the turntables to transform the word ‘Jesus’ into beguiling repetition as the kids danced and rapped in the cavernous white-painted room. The one-year anniversary of Thursday night’s hip-hop church was only weeks away and as the song concluded, Pogue launched into a sermon with characteristic and unfaltering energy. Minutes later, his face broke into a smile as a choir member’s cellular phone started to ring. As the offender fumbled for the phone in his jeans, Pogue turned around and said, “Tell Jesus I said ‘Wazzup?’”

The chilly winter air on Harlem’s 146th Street was firmly shut out by the simple wooden doors of the Greater Hood African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. In December of 2004, Pogue replaced gospel with hip-hop for Thursday night services to reach out the neighborhood’s youth.

“A lot of times we don’t look at young people as having problems,” Pogue said, “but they do.” Church choir member Donavan Bratton, 16, agreed. The lanky teenager leant back as though catching his breath before listing the woes of Harlem teenagers. “Violence, drugs, depression, stress, home issues, parent issues,” he said. Bratton summed up why he has been coming to hip-hop church since its inception in December 2004. “Hip-hop church is just a place where you can come and be yourself.”

Pogue, 39, knows about being himself and is open about his past drug use. In the early 1990s he was spending $400 per week on crack. The path back to God involved drug debts and a Christian rehabilitation center. Sitting in a large black leather desk chair, he pointed at a painting in his office that portrays a young man kneeling at his father’s feet. “The prodigal son ran out and left home,” he said. “He did everything he wanted to do, it got dirty and nasty and his father still accepted him just the way he was.”

A plastic box containing a crown of thorns stood unopened behind his desk. A portrait of Malcolm X hung over the door; the room’s largest painting depicted the biblical scene of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. He spent a recent Thursday preaching to youngsters about labels. For a long time, he said, his own label was “will never amount to nothing.” And he believed it himself.

Against many odds, Pogue gave up his drug habit, went to college and took over the leadership of Greater Hood in 2001 – at the time a struggling congregation with only 50 members. The church now has around 250 members and a big turning point came when Pogue accepted an offer to incorporate hip-hop music in church services instead of gospel.

“Never in my wildest imagination,” he said, “did I think we’d still be doing hip-hop church a year later and that it would be so vibrant and such a necessary tool in reaching people.” Since December 2004, when the initiative began, Pogue has worn jeans and a T-shirt to Thursday night services. The choir members wear the same informal clothes as the music blares out from speakers dotted across the enormous simply-furnished church.

He turns 40 next month. Although Pogue is not exceptionally tall at 5 feet 9 inches, his enormous shoulders give him the stature of a football player. When he walks through the fluorescent-lit church corridors, Pogue stoops slightly forward as though in a hurry. He adopts the same posture when preaching with a cord-less microphone. With his heavy physique, close-cut hair, and a short, thick neck, he dwarfs some of the younger parishioners who hug him before sauntering into the church.

Hip-hop has not traditionally been associated with spirituality. “It was originally a way for young people in the Bronx to express their emotions at parties,” said choir member Bratton. It was Bronx-based Rev. Darren Ferguson that first introduced hip-hop at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, also in Harlem, but was forced to relocate when conservative members of the church complained about the untraditional music at Friday night services. With hip-hop artist Kurtis Blow, Ferguson scoured Harlem for church leaders interested in adopting his method of reaching out to teenagers. Only two were interested and on meeting Pogue, Ferguson said, “it clicked.”

In the church, where a large illuminated cross hangs from a hefty metal chain over the altar, hip-hop with lyrics such as “the devil is after you” echo through the building. An American flag hangs next to the turntables where Pogue sometimes DJs as Kurtis Blow takes a break.

Pogue occasionally tries to sing along. This may be one of his few failings according to the parishioners. “God bless him, he has the true heart of a singer, he just don’t have the voice,” said colleague Omar Owens, a church trustee.

His enjoyment of the music may inspire many of the teenagers, but a topic that many of them raised was his honesty about his checkered past. Rev. Ferguson, who spent nine years in prison for attempted murder, said, “It gives us both a degree of credibility to these young people.”

Pogue’s mother Joan agreed. “It’s not like the kids can get over on him,” she said of her son, “because he’s been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”

From her home in Roselle, NJ, Joan Pogue spoke about her son, the middle child of six, over the speaker phone in Pogue’s cluttered office. She let out the same spontaneous laughter that her son sprinkles his conversation with as she thought back to Pogue’s childhood. “He found out that he was a little bit more intelligent
than the other kids,” she said. At that point, Pogue entered the office playing with a yo-yo.

“Now I’m standing right here,” he said to the speaker phone. “Don’t you go telling no tales.” The yo-yo reached the end of its cord to bounce back with frenetic speed into his hand. “I said you was a good kid,” his mother replied, her tone gently mocking. She asked him if he remembered the first grade test that revealed he should have been in the third grade. He did. “And ya’ll wouldn’t let me skip grade,” said Pogue, “I was too smart for them kids.” “Uh huh, that’s what you thought,” replied his mother. Then they both erupted into laughter. “Love you mama, gotta go do hip-hop church now.”

Despite his promising early schoolwork, Pogue conceded that drug use and laziness had eroded his performance by high school. At 18, he joined the U.S. Air Force. ”I think I urged him to get out of town,” his mother said, “so he wouldn’t hang around with the wrong people.”

Pogue’s son Stephen, 18, was born when he was stationed in the Philippines. Asked if he was clean at the time, Pogue, who has a habit of answering questions rapidly, momentarily paused for reflection. “Probably not,” he concluded. Raised for the most part in Florida by his mother, Stephen now lives in Nyack, NY, close to Pogue and his wife Iris who have two young daughters, Stephanie, 4, and Diana, 18 months.

“We’re so close now,” Pogue said of his son, “There’s nothing we can’t talk about.” He added that his son never asks about the drugs.

In New Jersey, Pogue’s family didn’t realize what he was going through. Joan Pogue said the first thing she noticed was that her son was always broke despite a full-time job for a plastic manufacturer. “Functioning,” she said, “he was a functioning drug user.”

Pogue described sinking lower and lower. “You buy drugs on credit,” he said, “you then use what you were going to pay them back with to get high again.” He would not go into detail about the people in his life at the time, partly, he said, because he could not remember. “The drugs fried my brain.”

In the end, he turned to his family. “When he had reached the end of his rope,” said his mother, “he came home and said ‘I need help.’”Pogue ended up at Pivot Ministries in Connecticut, a Christian center for men struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. At that point, said Pogue, he didn’t find it hard to quit. “With the power of God,” he said, “it was just like ‘boom.’ He immediately took the desire for drugs away from me.”

He stayed in Connecticut for several months and Joan Pogue said she saw for the first time that he was called to become a reverend. “I suppose it is something a mother knows about her kid when he has a special call,” she said.

He went on to Nyack College, NY, where he graduated with a degree in Bible and Pastoral Studies. A couple of years after graduation, he started working with disabled individuals. This is still his day job, from which he commutes to the church in Harlem in the evenings.

At the hip-hop church, Pogue encourages the children and teenagers to work hard and study. On a recent Thursday he handed out congratulatory certificates to young parishioners who had done well in school that week, high-fiving a young boy for his spelling bee result.

Teenagers such as Bratton said hip-hop church had led him back to God. “I was getting involved in things I wasn’t supposed to be getting involved in,” he said of his time away from the church. Yet Bratton has been a member of Greater Hood since childhood and his absence was temporary. He and his friends are not convinced that the hip-hop church can reach out to those in greatest need. Naia Ferguson, 16, said she speaks constantly about the church to all her friends, but added, “The people off the street, we’re trying to get them in but they don’t want to come here.”

For the teenagers that do attend, however, many feel they can come to Pogue with their problems. Naia Ferguson, who referred to church as “gossip central,” said Pogue is discreet. Zan Walker, 21, said “He not only listens, he looks for a solution.” Bratton commended Pogue’s style. “He’s a young pastor and it’s just energy. His age furthermore benefits his preaching style to the youth.”

Although much of the service is dedicated to the music, Pogue is adamant that the hip-hop should not undermine the traditional sermon. He was initially skeptical when Ferguson and Blow approached him with the idea a year ago. “I never wanted to play church,” he said.

The success appears to have been exhilarating for Pogue. Choir member Zan Walker said, “It’s like him going to the gas station and filling up his car. He’s always giving us all he’s got.”

Pogue’s wife Iris, 36, a financial analyst, agreed, saying hip-hop church leaves her husband energized, although, she said, “Fifty percent of the time I’m asleep when he comes home on Thursdays.” They met at church in Nyack, and after Pogue told her that she was his rib they married. Soon after, Pogue was offered the position at Greater Hood. “The day he was appointed we were newlyweds and I was a couple of months pregnant,” Iris said. “I think we had a vision of our lives and everything changed.” Their wedding photograph stands on top of a book case in Pogue’s office. “The girls and myself wish he was home more,” she reluctantly admitted.

From the yo-yo spinning and his constant movement from altar to turntable to soundboard during services, Pogue occasionally appears hyperactive. Walker said Pogue can be impatient.

Gray hairs in Pogue’s left eyebrow are one of few visible signs of aging. Admitting that he was exhausted after a recent two and a half hour service, Pogue slumped into his desk chair. Working two jobs with two young children at home, Pogue said he didn’t know where the energy comes from.

Turning his own negative experience into something positive may be one motivation. Pogue also said the attention the church has received is flattering. When a visitor to the church asked if she could take photographs during the service he smiled, “We’re used to it.”

No comments:

Post a Comment