Pastor said that Sunday was one for history, and it's hard to disagree.
Two warring crew leaders stood before the Fort Washington congregation of thousands, hugged, bawled and signed a truce. Hip-hop dancers kicked, spun and pop-locked for Jesus in front of the sanctuary. Several boys led the congregation in Scripture, rendered in "young men" translation:
I was crunk when they told me we goin' to chill at God's crib, standing at the gate with our Tims on, O Jeru.
Blessed are those who chill at Big G's crib, I'm feelin' this spot.
Let ev'rything I say, and ev'rything I feel, be cool with you, Big G, my man for life.
Then there was the kid who bodysurfed a mosh pit of amped-up boys wearing denim and jazzy black "Genesis" T-shirts. "They don't knooooow," the boys sang, paraphrasing the raspy rapper DMX, "who God iiiiiiiis!"
Two brothers looked on with evident pride. Ebenezer AME Church's young-adult minister, Tony Lee, 36, bobbed his long cornrows along, sitting on the front pew. The youth minister, Bill Lee, 32, began to say a few words at the pulpit but the boys' chants just grew louder. "You can't stop 'em," Bill Lee shouted over the ruckus, smiling as though the sun had broken through the clouds. "You can't stop 'em!"
That was the scene two Sundays ago at Ebenezer, one of the area's biggest and wealthiest churches: It featured a gang truce brokered by the Alliance of Concerned Men and the closing ceremony for the church's Young Men Conference, in which 400 boys learned life skills.
The house of worship served as a meeting point for the sacred and the secular, the young and the old, the square and the hip, the church and the street. It's an intersection where the Lee brothers have been coming for years to create their vibrant, inventive ministry of nearly 6,000 young people.
The brothers say the times call for more radical tactics to reach out to today's youth.
"It's so easy for churches to get caught up going to the light," Tony says. "There are young people crying out for alternatives."
"The church is not the four walls," says Bill. "In order to get young people to church, you've gotta go grab them."
The brothers have tried to grab them in part by bringing people into the church to bear witness -- D.C. go-go legend Ralph "Ghetto Prince" Glover, an actor on HBO's "The Wire" this season, testified about being shot nine times. And by going into strip clubs -- Tony introduced himself between acts and invited dancers back to the church. Several of them still attend.
The Lees have filled Bible lessons with slang and launched a fashion ministry -- a church-owned clothing line -- and a Christian nightclub called Saturday Night Live.
"The church in the past has made the mistake of treating the kids like adults," says Darrell Williams, an Annapolis youth minister and network coordinator for the National Network of Urban Youth Workers, an association of youth ministers. "The way your mom got saved is not the way these kids are going to get saved. Kids are more visual. Music is more a part of the culture now. We in the youth ministry have to counter that with something positive. . . . A lot of churches are following [the Lee brothers'] lead."
The Lees "are on the pulse of the youth and the young adults in the community," agrees Ebenezer co-pastor Jo Ann Browning. "They've developed programs that are on the cutting edge."
Some might say their tactics cut too close. This summer, the church invited Kanye West, the sometimes potty-mouthed producer-rapper whose hit single "Jesus Walks" was the first rap-to-gospel crossover hit. When they announced he would be coming to Ebenezer for an unprecedented church performance, folks threatened to come protest from as far away as Detroit. After the performance made national news, Tony had to go on radio to defend the church's decision.
"It was a good learning experience," says Bill. "Now my skin is a lot thicker. There will always be haters."
The brothers learned a similar lesson years ago. As an undergraduate at the University of Maryland at College Park, Tony was straying from the lessons he'd learned growing up in Southeast Washington and Prince George's County, the son of a God-fearing nurse and career Secret Service agent.
He was partying hard and getting into fights, dabbling in selling drugs and managing rap artists. And he was drinking heavily. "Bill was my designated driver," Tony recalls. "The only problem was that he was 14."
Many in the church turned away from Tony. Bill was a student at Friendly High, where Ebenezer, founded in 1856 and struggling with just a handful of members, began holding services. In 1988, after the two brothers got into an argument that turned violent, they knew something had to change. Tony told Bill that he would check out Ebenezer.
When he saw the conga players accompanying the choir, Tony knew it was a different kind of church. The ministers, senior pastor Grainger Browning Jr. and co-pastor Jo Ann Browning, infused their sermons with references to movie titles, pop music and sports.
One Sunday, Tony came to church still drunk from the night before. He threw up during service and reeked of alcohol, but he found love instead of condemnation. The brothers made a pact to journey together in their relationship with God. They dragged each other out of bed Sunday mornings. They punched each other when they cursed. They tried to shed all the negative influences in their lives.
Soon, Tony says, God told him to quit his job at a bank and go into the ministry. "I asked him to make sure that was God's voice," quips their father, Orlando Lee, now head of security at Ebenezer. (Wife Nancy is also a minister there.)
Tony worked with local organizations for at-risk youths and attended New York's Union Theological Seminary. He worked as a youth minister in New Jersey until 1999, when the Brownings invited him back to Fort Washington, where Ebenezer had relocated and began to grow into the 12,000-member mega-church it is today.
Bill had earned an economics degree from the University of Maryland and worked as a basketball coach and a math teacher in Prince George's schools. He helped his brother out at Ebenezer for years, and was appointed youth minister when Tony became Ebenezer's young-adult minister two years ago.
When the local anti-crime organization Alliance of Concerned Men brokered the truce between the two gangs, it turned to the Lee brothers to provide spiritual guidance. They prayed with the gangs' leaders, both of whom Bill had known from the community.
"It was awesome to me because I know where Billy came from, Billy knows where I came from," says Henry "Hank" Johnson, the 32-year-old leader of the Birchwood City crew in Oxon Hill. "To turn my past back around, he knows it's coming from the heart."
Their efforts culminated in the emotional truce-signing in front of the church.
"If you looked at that congregation, you had weeping adults," Tony says. "Many adults are looking for that ray of hope. For the young men, it gave them a sense of affirmation that their community would support them."
Yesterday, 10 crew members started life-skills training -- from spiritual to technological -- at Ebenezer in preparation for jobs the church is lining up for them. The church also plans to pay for Johnson and the other crew leader, 24-year-old Dominic Taylor of the Shadow High gang in Fort Washington, to record a rap song about their experiences in Prince George's. Proceeds would go toward local community centers.
"Anytime there is a ball rolling in the wrong direction, you've got to have a time when you stop and change direction," Tony says. "It's the role of the church to pick up steam and push it."
Johnson would agree. "This is just a golden opportunity to better myself and make my family proud and help the community," he says. "I'm not saying I can stop all the killing in P.G. County, but I can make a difference. I know a lot of people in this world will listen to me. If they see my new walk, they will have no reason not to believe that it's real."