Modern Ministry Is Off to Raucous Start

Nancy Lee, mother of the Rev. Tony Lee, and others come to their feet during Community of Hope's first service. At left is the pastor's father, Orlando.
Nancy Lee, mother of the Rev. Tony Lee, and others come to their feet during Community of Hope's first service. At left is the pastor's father, Orlando. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 17, 2006

As the go-go band set up inside, a line of people snaked outside the Legend Nightclub yesterday.

It was hardly an unusual scene, as the Temple Hills strip club frequently packs a crowd. But yesterday morning, there were no scantily clad bodies in sight, the bottles of liquor were covered with white sheets and the dance floor was lined with folding chairs.

"Who would have ever thought that God would decide to start a church at the Legend club?" the Rev. Tony Lee, founder of the new Community of Hope church in Prince George's County, told his congregation from the club's stage. "What in the world is God doing?"

And just like that, on Resurrection Sunday, an improbable church was born.

The first two services, which drew hundreds to the African Methodist Episcopal ministry yesterday, were rambunctious, loud and mildly chaotic.

Vintage Lee, many in attendance noted.

"He grew up in the hip-hop era that the traditional church doesn't understand," said Debbie Goodman, 50, who attended the 10 a.m. service yesterday. "But he does. That generation doesn't understand the word of God."

So last summer, Lee, 37, decided to engage people under 40 with no deep religious zeal through a ministry that spoke their language and understood their angst. He and a handful of church leaders worked tirelessly over the past few months to make it happen.

The unconventional setting -- a temporary home for the church until its building, less than a mile away at 3134 Branch Ave., is completed -- probably helped spread the word. And the congas kept nary a hip or shoulder still yesterday.

"I can have a conversation in the neighborhood and be cool," said Lee, who grew comfortable behind the pulpit at Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington. "And I can have a conversation at an Ivy League and be cool."

The Rev. Grainger Browning Jr., senior pastor of Ebenezer AME, said Lee is leaving the congregation after nearly a decade with his full blessing. "We are so proud of what he is doing. He has been on the cutting edge of relevant ministry since he came to Ebenezer. He is a modern-day John the Baptist."

Lee's new church will have an important online component, he said. On its Web site, http://www.thehopenation.com/ , parishioners will soon be able to watch recorded sermons, post messages on community blogs, download audio files and access ring tones from church songs.


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