Here's a new spin on an old priestly blessing:

Trinity Church-St. Paul's Chapel
Photo by Leo Sorel
"My sistas and brothas, all the posse of God, stay up, keep your head up, holla back, and go forth and tell it like it is!"

The liturgy might have been the last place you were expecting to hear hip hop, but in a growing number of Episcopal churches, the language of prayer and the language of rap are finding common ground.

That's right: the rhythms and phrases of hip hop, which have often glorified wealth and violence in song lyrics, are used to glorify God in a new kind of prayer book from the company that publishes liturgical materials for the Episcopal Church.

"This is not some sideshow or entertainment," said the Rev. Timothy Holder, editor of The Hip Hop Prayer Book. "This is the vernacular of God, through the messengers, who are the rappers."

The book contains morning and evening prayers, psalms, Bible stories, and church services, using words and phrases you're more likely to hear on MTV than in church.

Trinity Church-St. Paul's Chapel
Photo by Leo Sorel

The first words of the 23rd Psalm appear in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible as, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He makes me lie down in green pastures." They are adapted in The Hip Hop Prayer Book as, "The Lord is all that, I need for nothing. He allows me to chill."

The book is available from Church Publishing Inc., which also publishes The Book of Common Prayer and the Episcopal Church hymnal. While those are official church publications, The Hip Hop Prayer Book is not. Instead, the company hopes it will appeal to both individuals and churches that want to reach a new audience.

"Here's a movement that's coming up from the grassroots in the church," said Kenneth L. Arnold, the company's publisher. "[The prayer book] is in an idiom you haven't seen before, and it may open up the church to you in a new way. It's more fun than your average prayer book."

"Some of the best of Episcopal liturgy and some of the best of what we call hip hop liturgy and worship are represented in the prayer book," said Holder.

That combination is evident in a prayer to be used during a Eucharist service, which reads:

Loving God, you have worked through the hearts and minds of these your gathered peoples, your homies, your brothers and sisters. Let your Word be lifted up in the language of the streets, so that more and more of your peeps will know You and your loving presence. Be with us as we lift our voices in prayer and song, giving shouts out in your name, meeting you in the breaking of the bread. All this we ask in the name of our Brother, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen! WORD!

The book contains contributions from hundreds of rappers, DJs, MCs, and clergy. It grew out of special hip-hop services at Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania in the South Bronx, where Holder is the priest.

Trinity Church-St. Paul's Chapel
Photo by Leo Sorel
Holder, 51, now describes himself as a hip hop priest, but he wouldn't have used that phrase when he began working in September 2002 as rector at the 135-year-old parish. Only vaguely aware of hip hop, he got to know his new neighbors and wondered how to reach the children and teens.

A hostage standoff in the neighborhood proved to be a turning point. In 2004, police sharpshooters were stationed in Holder's home, aiming at a man who had taken a hostage in an apartment just 30 yards away. Holder had to stay in his own stairwell for about six hours.

In a conversation with his bishop after the hostage situation, Holder, who has a degree from Harvard Divinity School, wondered if his work was relevant, especially given a statistic he had heard—men in the South Bronx have a close to an 80 percent chance of being incarcerated at least once before they're 40.

But he and his bishop agreed: "If the Gospel of Jesus Christ is legitimate, then we are legitimate." That's when Holder suggested the idea of creating a hip hop mass.

"Hip hop to me is a tremendous blessing," Holder said. "It's made me a better human being and priest. It's all about the genuine."

He worked with Episcopal, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic clergy and lay people to create seven Friday masses in the summer of 2004, with the theme, "The word was made flesh and dwelt in the hood," adapted from the Gospel of John.

Trinity Church-St. Paul's Chapel
Photo by Leo Sorel

"Almost immediately we started hearing from rappers, DJs, MCs—this rich thing called hip hop culture," Holder said. But there were no relevant liturgical materials to use. Rappers and clergy created a liturgy and, later, adapted portions of The Book of Common Prayer into the Master Mix and Master Missal, which laid a foundation for the prayer book.

The services were originally scheduled to end after that first summer, but the response was so positive they continued and named their service the HipHopEMass.

Holder now dreams of a congregation where The Hip Hop Prayer Book sits next to The Book of Common Prayer in the pews.

"The Hip Hop Prayer Book, I think, speaks very effectively to wide ranges of people—young, old, black, white, hip hop or not. It is worship," Holder said. "It is the Holy Spirit moving among us."

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