“If it weren’t for hip-hop, I wouldn’t be in the church, period. What I later heard from some great pastors, I first heard from some dope emcees and gifted songwriters whose songs are described by church folk as “indecent” and “improper” and “unorthodox”. They are, and I thank God for them, because those were my burning bushes.” — Julian DeShazier, Senior Pastor, University Church in Chicago
Over the next 12 months, the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) is spotlighting 12 leaders, their stories, and how their passion and call to shape a more hopeful future through Christian ministry guides the impact they are making in their communities, institutions and universities. You can find the full series, here.
By Julian DeShazier // J.Kwest
Senior Pastor of University Church in Chicago
I always wanted one of those Moses-burning- bush moments, where the spirit of God would take the form of nature to communicate some deep truth about my life, my path, and my purpose in this world.
It was the most compelling story in the Bible for my 10-year- old psyche. I only went to church in hopes of experiencing this moment, because in my community you went to church to “hear from God.” It never happened for me. I saw it happen for others, but never for me.
My cousin was released from prison and said he heard from God—whose name was really “Allah”—there. This was interesting enough, and I was a Wu-Tang fanatic, so I took the faith of the Five-Percenters (Nation of Islam) as my own. Their socially-aware and no-nonsense approach to politics, race, and educating the masses resonated deeply in my 13-year- old psyche, and living on the Southside of Chicago I was surrounded and fascinated by talk of Min. Louis Farrakhan. I felt empowered by the knowledge—enlightened even—but never lit on fire. Nothing from Christianity or Islam resonated in the pit of my stomach; not like the songs did.
That time “End of the Road” (Boyz II Men) was playing in the car as we were looking for a family member that had gone missing, again. I saw a woman on the corner, holding her baby, in the middle of the night. I can’t forget it. I wanted to ask my mother why she was there, but the time didn’t feel right to be curious. I let the song wash over me, and it was an encounter with Truth…we’ve come to the end of the road. Nothing more needed to be said.
Or that time I first heard “Introspection for Life” (Common ft. Lauryn Hill), my first time hearing a personal story about abortion. It was nuanced, sensitive, and painful: exceeding in beauty far beyond the jargon of “life” and “choice.” This song was Truth, and it made me consider the complexities of the “grown folks” I wanted to emulate; it helped me appreciate my youth.
No house of faith ever said anything so direct to my teenage angst as when Donny Hathaway said, “Hang onto the world as it spins around/just don’t let the spin get you down” (“Someday We’ll All Be Free”), or when Billie Holiday massaged my insecurity by calling me “strange fruit,” or when Wu-Tang Clan made me feel triumphant.I needed those reminders—as do entire communities—which is why I’m in ministry. I ended up back in the church because the most popular rapper at school was in the cafeteria free-styling about God and told me about his church, and the youth pastor said I could perform too if I had a story to tell. Neither BreevEazie nor Rev. James preached a sermon. Their art invited me in.
I feel like churches are the custodians of love language—hope, fearlessness, unbridled joy—and should share these words with neighboring institutions and to strengthen the public. But something is happening with Christianity: we depend too much upon sermons and act too much like corporations, and wonder why we’re losing steam with a generation that listens for shorter pockets of time and doesn’t have jobs. In the 1980s most churches made a decision to honor size over intimacy, to become malls, and well…you see what’s happening to malls.
I want youth to have burning-bush experiences. And I’m guessing if the Southside is still the SOUTHSIDE (it is, in fact, more traumatic today) then the primary caregivers in the community (i.e. churches) are going to have to provide more entry points than the sermon. We’re going to have to use art, and I’m not talking about gospel music; those songs are mostly just sermons anyway. I’m talking about using art that speaks in the language of whatever public we serve; as an entry point, an invitation to experience something deeper. I’m talking about hip-hop. I’m not talking about Pastor Julian; I’m talking about J.Kwest.
University Church in Chicago (where I pastor) has a Sunday service, Bible studies, dinners: all the trappings of a “healthy church.” We also have a music studio in our basement, where kids can come and tell their story in whatever language they like, and a theatre for kids to scream and cry and proclaim. They’ll learn just as well, and hopefully feel empowered enough to find out what’s going on on Sundays. I don’t think we need bigger churches; the church needs more entry points.
Rev. Julian DeShazier is an FTE alum. He joined University Church as Senior Pastor in November 2010. He is a Chicago native, and a graduate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Prior to beginning here, Julian served as Teen Pastor at Covenant United Church of Christ, and has also worked extensively with the Coca-Cola Leadership Program and Fund for Theological Exploration.
Pastor Julian is also an award-winning hip hop musician and songwriter, known to many as “J.Kwest.” In 2015, he won an EMMY Award for his role in the short film, Strange Fruit. He has also been featured on Fox, CBS, and NPR; on the late Dr. Maya Angelou’s Sirius XM radio program; and on the cover of the Chicago Reader. Julian is currently an adjunct professor both at the University of Chicago Divinity School and McCormick Theological Seminary, and a regular voice on Huffington Post and Sojourners publications.