Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Gotta have faith


Gay pastor bridges rap & church communities

Author Eric Gutierrez. Photo: Jenny Walters
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It's hard to believe that a white gay pastor from rural Tennessee would be a pivotal bridge between Bronx rap culture and conservative black churches, but that's just one of the interweaving stories in author Eric Gutierrez' Disciples of the Street: the Promise of a Hip Hop Church .

How did the gay Latino journalist, former editor of the artsy High Performance, and founding board member of Out magazine, end up following a national tour of hip hop rappers with a religious streak?

It began with news that an alumnus from his alma mater, Harvard Divinity School, Father Timothy Holder, was being given an award for his community service. That led to Gutierrez penning an article for Out in 2006, which got the attention of his eventual publishers, Seabury Books.

"I've always had a religious background," said Gutierrez, who had previously written about gay Christians. "But I don't consider myself religious now."

Yet give him a few minutes to talk about his book, or on radio shows where he's chatted with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Tavis Smiley, and he can testify about the spiritual energy of his subjects.

"Religion and Christianity are not the enemy of peace, love and justice," said Gutierrez. "Religion has been a partner in every peace and labor movement, and, increasingly, the LGBT movement."

Disciples covers a broad range of real people, from Pastor Timothy, later dubbed "Poppa T," to fancy-hatted church ladies and seminal rap singer Curtis Blow, whose song "These Are the Breaks" marked the beginning of the early rap genre.

"Some in the church thought it blasphemous," said Gutierrez of the movement's early roots, where teenagers were invited to break dance, sing and perform free-form in churches. "But now, Gospel rap is the largest growing sector of the billion-dollar rap industry. The Grammys started a gospel rap category. The hip hop church movement is more than just an evangelical tool; it's transforming the way Christianity and hip hop are understood."

To fight the gang war-torn violence of New York's ghetto, coaxing troubled teenagers into church with hip hop music may sound as corny as some of the break-dancing movies of the 1980s. But somehow it worked, and Gutierrez takes us on the tour to correctional facilities, upscale churches and down-and-out towns.

Sometimes, Father "Poppa T" Timothy's being gay led to problems: performers refusing to share a stage with him, or confrontations. But the HipHopEMass, as the shows have come to be known, persevered.

"What set them apart from a lot of rap ministries is not just the sound," said Gutierrez. "Poppa T and Curtis Blow consider hip hop to be a radical prophetic voice. It's about transformation."

Gutierrez sees the peaceful merging of these communities as a sign of hope, that those disenfranchised from Christianity, and turned off by the negative homophobic aspects of pop culture, can find a way in. "We can't afford to let the potentially best in our world continue to be used against us."

Gutierrez will preach a sermon, Jesus of the Bronx, 10:30 a.m., Sept. 7, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Bush at Gough. A participatory Hip Hop and Gospel Rap event takes place at 4 p.m.  For more info, visit

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