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Stateside: Hip hop church uses music, religion and dance as a tool for gang prevention

Emily Fox

West Michigan is known as the bible belt of the state. There are countless churches in the area but there is only one hip-hop church. It’s called the EDGE Urban Fellowship. It’s fusing religion, music and dance as a gang prevention tool for youth in Grand Rapids, a city home to nearly 60 organized gangs.

Worship takes place on Saturday evenings on Division Street. It’s less than three miles from Downtown Grand Rapids in a pretty rundown neighborhood infamous for prostitution. The church looks like an old office building but inside, the walls are covered in graffiti. There’s a stage in the front of the worship area and three 20 year olds hold microphones and are getting ready to sing and bust out some pretty elaborate dance moves. It looks like a local hip hop show. . . but it’s actually the start of worship at the Edge, which is one of the first so-called hip hop churches in the nation.

Tamara Jones is one of the many 20 somethings in the crowd.

“I think when a lot of people come up in here they see we’re wearing our hats, we are wearing our boots, we are wearing whatever it is we want to wear and they’re jumping up and down on stage for praise and workship. It sparks an interest,” she says.

Jones grew up in the foster care system and says she felt like she didn’t have a family to call her own until she came to the hip-hop church. She says many people at the Edge come from some pretty rough backgrounds

“I mean yeah, you got a lot of cats in here that have been in the streets, that have given it up,” she says.

Jones says she’s been through a lot during her 20 years of life so far and says she’s glad someone caught her early, before she was too far gone in street life. And that statement is echoed by a lot of young people I talked to here.

The Edge was founded around three years ago by a guy named Troy Evans. He started the church as a way to reach out to youth who either don’t have families or are starting to get involved in gangs. And Evans knows exactly what that’s like, he was off on his own by the time he was 16 and led one of the gangs in the area. He says he joined the gang because he wanted to be a part of something bigger than himself, and be part of a family or community that supported him.

“What I saw was a group of people who cared about each other at a level,” Evans says. “ What I saw was when there wasn’t men in the community, or men outside of the community or the church that cared at all about what we were doing, there was a man who took us under his wing. He just so happened to be the leader of the organization.”

But being in the gangs wasn’t all about love and support. Evans served prison time after a drug bust and fled Michigan when he started getting death threats. After a few years of traveling the country he came back to Michigan to find an anchor in his life, and this time that anchor was God. Now he dedicates his life to gang prevention and running the hip-hop church. He wants to help those who are in a similar situation he was in as a kid.

“Our idea of a church holistically, we become surrogate parents,” Evans says.

One of those kids who Evans has adopted under his leadership is Steven Malcolm. He was on the Edge’s stage performing one of the many songs he spent hours writing and producing in the very same building. 

“I basically live here,” Malcolm says.  “It’s like a second home to me. I am here every single day either working on music or kickin' it with my friends here.”

Malcolm says Evans has made a big impact on a lot of the people with his story and what he’s doing to help the neighborhood  .

“A lot of these young cats that I hang out with, he’s our Dad, because the one thing all of me and the 5 other cats out there have in common, none of us have our Dads. They’re either locked up, dead, or mine is in Jamaica because he got caught selling drugs and he Jamaican so they deported him. None of us have our Dad’s and Troy really stepped in and is a father in our lives,” Malcolm says.

Evans says he’s stepped in in a way he knows how. He says leading people in a church isn’t that much different from leading a gang.

“They’re small differences,” He says. “There’s a lot of things you do that’s the same. How do you move a person from here to there is the same and taking strategic steps to get them there is the same and then having milestones as you go is the same thing. To indoctrinate someone is the same, to teach theology is the same.”

Evans says discipleship is discipleship, but it’s a lot more fulfilling to worship god than it is to devote your life to violence, drugs and money.

Evans says church and gangs can both provide a feeling of safety, community, and family. But he believes more and more people are finding those things at the hip-hop church rather than in the street of Grand Rapids.

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