The Gospel According to Hip Hop

The Rev. Timothy Holder, MDiv '97.

On the tumultuous streets of the South Bronx, one HDS graduate has built his training in ministry into an innovative new program that is drawing record numbers of young parishioners into a church community.

The Rev. Timothy Holder, MDiv ’97, is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, and he has led the development of the Hip Hop Mass, a weekly street-side event that incorporates slang and rap music into a traditional worship service.

For just over a year, Holder’s services have echoed through the streets of the South Bronx, reaching young people who otherwise might never have stepped through the doors of his church. His pioneering ministry, which is taking place in an area that gave birth to the hip hop movement, seeks to communicate Christian messages in the language his parishioners use.

With refrains of “word” and “holla back,” Holder aims to combine established scripture and prayer with vernacular and reformation techniques. In his efforts, he has succeeded in transforming a fading church into a vibrant community teeming with young members.

“When I came to the South Bronx, my first question was, ‘How do we all worship and pray together as one?’ ” Holder says. “I saw in the community an opportunity to be closer to that question. I was drawn into the burgeoning population of people from the West Indies, Hispanic people, and by all of the children and young people especially.”

Holder’s journey to the South Bronx, and to ministry itself, was long and winding.

He was raised in Alabama as a Baptist, in what he calls “a very rich moral Christian tradition,” but at age 18, he joined the Episcopal Church and—in the midst of attending, and graduating from, the University of the South at Sewanee—dove headfirst into the world of politics.

He worked for a string of political campaigns during the 1970s and ’80s, including a stint as the deputy finance chair for the Democratic National Committee. But he found the world of politics to be unsatisfying, and he began to explore other career options, especially in ministry.

Then, a chance visit to Cambridge opened his eyes to Harvard Divinity School. “When I first walked onto Harvard’s campus, I just breathed easy,” he recalls.

“I liked the look and feel of the place. I came across the curriculum listings for the fall, and I started to perk up. From those first hours and days, I was just in love with Harvard, and knew that it really would be the best training in the world to be a priest in the world.”

After completing a Master of Divinity degree at HDS in 1997, Holder returned to the South, and was ordained in the same year as the first openly gay priest in the history of his diocese.

Holder’s talent for revitalizing church communities quickly became evident through his work with Grace Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama. There, he established the first Spanish-speaking congregation in his diocese, which continues to flourish today. Holder looked forward to greater challenges, and set his sights on New York City.

In 2002, he was appointed rector of Trinity Episcopal Church of Morrisania, and quickly sought new ways to draw members of his neighborhood into the church.

He attended a showing of Tupac: Resurrection, a film retrospective of the life of Tupac Shakur, a pioneering force in hip hop who was killed in the mid-1990s.

“Before I knew anything about it, I had always found hip hop to be caustic,” Holder recalls, “But there was one point in this film that stuck with me—when Tupac looks into the camera and says: ‘You don’t understand. I was born a thug and I will die a thug. And I want to know one thing: Who will speak for the thugs?’ That question went right into my heart, because there were ‘thugs’ all around my neighborhood.”

Soon thereafter, Holder was confronted with a first-hand illustration of the South Bronx’s often-violent dynamic. In March 2004, a hostage situation developed in the housing projects across the street from the church. For more than six hours, police were stationed in and around Holder’s church, as a young boy held his own grandmother hostage. During that time, Tupac’s question reverberated within Holder.

“I began to wonder—are we really doing anything to listen? Who is speaking for this young man?” Holder recalls.

Fortunately that hostage situation was resolved without harm, and the events of that day became a turning point for Holder’s ministry. He came to realize that hip hop could be utilized to speak directly to the poor, destitute, and troubled, echoing the basic principles of Christianity.

The next day, Holder went to his colleagues with a seed of an idea that would grow into the Hip Hop Mass. Within months, the program was a success, and young people from the neighborhood are now flocking to the service, held on the first Friday of every month.

Holder says his experience with the Hip Hop Mass can serve as an example for church leaders everywhere. “My prayer upon ordination,” he says, “was from the bottom of my heart, . . . to be the best parish priest and pastor that I can be—to ‘walk my parish.’ If we do not ‘walk our parishes,’ how might we know those we are called to serve? . . . I am not sure that we really can pray for our parish—for our people—if we do not walk among them.”