By Rodney Reinhart
Few Episcopalians can be accused of overly experimental ventures in music. We fill our Sunday services with music that our grandparents would have loved, and we rarely move outside our musical comfort zones.
The Diocese of Chicago’s annual convention in November nudged us out of that comfort zone a bit, and many of us loved it. During the convention’s closing prayer service, the Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Lee and the music committee introduced a rap duo called Verbal Kwest.
Few of us had heard religious hip-hop or Christian rap before. We stood transfixed as Verbal Kwest — the Rev. Julian DeShazier, senior minister of University Church at the University of Chicago, and fellow pastor Anthony “BreevEazie” Lowery — rapped several startlingly beautiful and clear hip-hop anthems. People of all ages clapped and cheered as the rappers inspired us with their messages of courage and faith.
DeShazier, also known as “J.Kwest,” is a 29-nine-year old graduate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School. University Church, a United Church of Christ congregation with an average Sunday attendance of 150 people, has a longstanding reputation for traditional church music.
As a campus institution, University Church also has a vital ministry to young people, both students and non-students. DeShazier began to add elements of rap and hip-hop to Sunday services. Along with congregational hymns, church members hear soloists and youth choirs performing hip-hop. The preacher sometimes recites rap lyrics in the sermon.
With a little tolerance, education and patience, the church has retained its older members and has gained new young members. Rap music may have brought them in, but God’s love and the ministry of the church keep them coming back.
Verbal Kwest tells stories of suffering and pain and of Christ’s healing and grace. As DeShazier preaches in both contemporary and traditional styles, he speaks to a new generation in a language they understand. He knows that young people are deeply aware of the suffering and violence in the homes and the streets of Chicago. He also knows that Americans are aware that violence, terror, and guns can affect all our lives.
The video for their song “Crazy Streets” alludes to the beating death of Fenger High School honors student Derrion Albert in 2009. The Rev. Jesse Jackson makes a cameo appearance in the video, mouthing the lyrics to the song’s chorus.