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Modern Ministry Is Off to Raucous Start
Pastor Seeks to Engage Young Generation in Md.

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.

"You can run around with sister Shante on your ring tone," Lee said of a singer at the church.

For the past decade, a number of congregations in the Washington area have started ministries to reach out to young adults, offering coffeehouses, services with casual clothes or hip-hop gospel music.

"Younger pastors are out there now and they are going after their own peers and without limitations -- it's come as you are," said Tracy Morgan, a longtime radio personality who works for gospel station WAVA (105.1 FM). "I do believe it has been effective. They are bringing them in, getting them in the door . . . so we hope there is a change in their lifestyles. . . . They are hearing the word of God, so it's definitely having an impact."

Lee's preaching style has undertones of rap and stand-up comedy.

But his jabs aren't gratuitous. And his parables -- one was about hooking up in a dark nightclub with a hot guy or girl only to realize the object of your affection looks awful when you step out of the dark -- ring true for a generation that Lee says includes thousands of people beset by anger and hopelessness.

Jesus, he said, was "born in the 'hood" in an "unwed kind of situation."

Jesus, he told the congregation, was surrounded by "haters" until the day he was killed.

And, seriously, who isn't surrounded by haters these days, Lee demanded, receiving hearty applause and dozens of nods.

There are four types of haters in the world, he explained.

First are the "never known them, never seen 'em kind of haters," Lee explained, drawing a parallel with the soldiers who mocked Jesus as he walked toward the cross.

Then there's the "don't deserve to hate him" type, like the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus -- the kind of people who "hate you because you smoke weed and they're smoking crack."

The "flip-flop haters," Lee continued, are those who hailed Jesus as a prophet and the next day jeered him as he was being crucified.

Finally, Lee said, there's the "personal hater," the Judas type -- the "you've-been-hanging-out-with-me kind of hater."

Haters -- a term he used to refer to the people and things that stand in the way of success and peace -- aren't going anywhere, he told the crowd, which at times rocked back and forth, laughing.

So, embrace them. Put up with them with dignity. That'll show them.

At the rear of the club, two young men who know plenty about haters and hating were running the audio visual equipment.

Until last year, Dominic Taylor, 25, and Hank Johnson, 34, had been at odds in a long, bloody feud between rival neighborhood groups. Johnson, an Oxon Hill resident who spent nearly 10 years behind bars, at one point dreaded being near his daughters in public because he was a targeted man.

Taylor, of Fort Washington, had a grandfather who died in prison and a father who's serving time.

They said their feud had no logic. It was all "miscommunications" that left a trail of blood and heartbreak, they explained.

"It's like a lose-lose situation," Johnson said. "When they put it on TV, on movies, on video games, it all looks fun. They don't show the pain."

After a particularly jarring confrontation between the groups in 2004, Lee stepped in and brokered a truce.

"When he starts speaking, you can't help but listen," Johnson said. "He been there. You know what makes him so special? He's got cornrows."

Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

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