10/2/2001 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.
NOTE: A photograph is available.
By Cathy Farmer*
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UMNS) -- When the sign went up proclaiming 'Mr. Del here tonight,' Asbury United Methodist Church experienced a flood of phone calls.
"Really? You mean THE 'Mr. Del' is gonna be at your church tonight?" the young callers marveled, amazed that the famous rapper would be appearing at a southeast Memphis church. Mr. Del, a former member of the platinum-selling gangsta rap group Three-6 Mafia, has a huge following, and not just in Memphis.
That's why the Rev. Jerry Hassell, Asbury's pastor, decided to ask the famous young African- American singer to lead a new Friday night ministry called "Refuge East" at the church.
"We see 'Refuge East' as an outreach to the youth of our community," Hassell said, explaining that his predominantly white congregation is sitting in the middle of a changing neighborhood.
"While the adults in our area are probably 60 percent white, the youth and children are 80 percent African American or some other race.
"We wanted to open our doors to the youth, no strings attached, no pressure," he said.
Troy Ann Poulopoulous, campus minister at the University of Memphis, told Hassell about Mr. Del. The rapper had been appearing at her campus ministry for several weeks, drawing kids from all over Memphis.
"We knew it was a risk, but no risk, no gain," Hassell said.
On the first of 10 Friday nights scheduled at the church through November, Mr. Del drew 75 youth, both African American and white. They came after the high school football game and stayed until church members closed the doors at 11:15.
The fellowship hall was filled with kids dancing to the rap beat and munching on the snacks provided by Asbury members.
Mr. Del himself, a graduate of Germantown High School, was more than glad to be there. He took time away from the turntable to discuss his motivation in leaving Three-6 Mafia and starting a music ministry to teens and young adults.
"God is just so good," he said fervently, "that I want people to know it."
Del, 23, said he grew up in church, that his mother is an evangelist, but that he'd fallen away from his early training.
"God called me back," he said.
"These kids need a haven for nonviolence, a safe haven where they can get to know God and have a better relationship with him instead of roaming the streets," he said. "Here, at 'Refuge East,' they can feel safe and at the same time praise God."
During his time with Three-6 Mafia, Del had plenty of fame, fortune and fun. He toured the country with the group and with well-known rappers Juvenile and Cash Money. He was even awarded a gold record for one of his songs.
But it wasn't enough. In 1998, he realized what was missing: a relationship with God. Parting amicably with Three-6 Mafia, he began a music ministry designed to bring young people to Christ.
Part of that ministry takes place on Saturday evenings at River's Edge, the Wesley Foundation fellowship at the University of Memphis. Called 'Refuge,' the hip-hop Christian "nightclub" draws hundreds of young people weekly.
Barbara Rascoe, Del's manager, says 'Refuge' and 'Refuge East' at Asbury are needed desperately by Memphis' young people.
"The ministries address the needs of the community," she said.
"The kids can come as they are, and it gives them a place to hide from the gangs, hide from the drugs."
Hassell said there's increasing evidence of drugs in Asbury's southeast Memphis neighborhood.
"The kids are being pressured to be in gangs," he said, "and there's so little pointed at trying to reach them for Christ. That's why we wanted to provide a safe place for them, a place with no pressure.
"I'll be interested to see how it works," he said.
He knows, however, that the first Friday performance was a success.
"A lot of neighborhood kids called the church afterwards, telling us they appreciated us letting them come here," he said.
That's a switch. Kids thanking a church for allowing them to come in the doors.
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* Farmer is communications director of the United Methodist Church's Memphis Annual Conference. This story originally appeared in the conference edition of the United Methodist Reporter.