Building a Church That Isn’t “A Middle Finger to Everybody from the Neighborhood”

Jordan Rice’s goal for his newly launched Renaissance Church is to love Harlem without changing it.

When Jordan Rice moved to Harlem two years ago to start a church, he didn’t know a single person there who would ever want to be part of one. But he knew the neighborhood — he used to come to Harlem from New Rochelle every Saturday morning as a kid to play basketball, his first love in life.

Rice, who is at least six-feet tall and wore a dark denim button-down, red pants, and brown leather shoes when we met, grew up in what he calls “old-school black churches” — those all-African American churches that often emphasize what Rice calls a “me-centered” theology or the “prosperity gospel.” They’re a type of church familiar in Harlem.

When he decided to start Renaissance Church — which held its first service last Sunday at PS 76 — Rice chose Harlem for two reasons: he was frustrated with church subculture and he loved the diversity of the neighborhood.

Long an epicenter of African American culture, Harlem is now changing dramatically as young professionals move in and bring their cultures along with them. Ten years ago, the thought of planting a diverse church in Harlem would have been laughable; recent gentrification has made it possible — even necessary, Rice said.

 

Rice told me about a friend from another church who has lived in Harlem for a few years. One day, when Rice went to his house for a Bible study, there were about 16 people there. “Every last one of them was white and had recently moved in,” he said. “I was like, man, that would be a terrible day at that church. I don’t care if there’s a thousand people there, that would be horrendous. That’s a middle finger to everybody from the neighborhood.”

He wants Renaissance to mirror the neighborhood, not change it. “Well-intentioned people come in all the time and change culture in addition to changing hearts,” Rice said. “Christ commands us to go out and change hearts, never to change a culture.”

It helps that when Rice meets guys from the block he can say things like, “I’ve been getting shaved ices from 145th Street since I was a kid.” His accent also works in his favor, as does being African American.

But at the same time, Rice recognizes that he’s a gentrifier. He’s a former lawyer (his path: law school, seminary, lawyer, church planter) who moved into the neighborhood and is driving up rents like everyone else. He acknowledges the financial incentives of gentrification, but he’s set on building a church culture that Harlem natives can connect to and “find Jesus there in a powerful way.” That, he says, is his tension.

“Man, it would be over my dead body where we plant a church that the dude that’s from here can’t go to,” Rice said.

“In jail, nobody gives a crap about 99 percent of stuff that they care about in churches.”

When Rice went to college at Morgan State University in Baltimore, it was the first time in his life he wasn’t required to go to church, so he didn’t. He partied, smoked weed — until his sophomore year, when he started feeling dissatisfied with life.

He realized why while studying Spanish with a friend one night. She asked Rice what the cross he was wearing meant to him, and when he tried to explain it, he realized he didn’t really know. A few weeks later, studying the Bible with some friends from that girl’s church, Jordan had to hide back the tears — he felt a veil had been lifted from his eyes, and he could never go back to living the same life as before.

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Jordan Rice speaking at Renaissance Church’s neighborhood dinner.

Rice was now full of zeal, eager to share Jesus with his friends. But he couldn’t find a single church that presented the faith straight up, without all the Christianese. Rather, most make it so you have to first convert to church culture before getting to, well, Jesus.

So, he started teaching an impromptu Bible study on campus for the friends he used to party with, none of whom were Christians. “The first time I taught, I remember standing in front of the classroom and having this moment of clarity, knowing that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Rice said.

He had realized his “calling,” by which he means he felt both burdened and gifted.

When Jordan started seminary at Drew Theological, he still wasn’t happy with the local church culture. At that point, he’d stopped going to church for a year, his only Christian community through a seminary residency at Sing Sing, New York’s maximum-security prison.

“That really encouraged me again to believe in Christian community, to believe in the power of being connected in a real way,” Jordan said. “In jail, nobody gives a crap about 99 percent of stuff that they care about in churches. So, it was just really organic, and it was just real. You can have real conversations. It wasn’t a show or performance.”

“We do stuff to weed people out.”

Rice’s big goal is to love Harlem without trying to change it. From the start, he’s been investing his resources — time and money — into people from the neighborhood.

One of those people is Wendell Wilson, Harlem born and raised. The two met through Young Life, a worldwide adolescent Christian ministry that Rice joined when he first moved to the neighborhood.

When I first met him, Wilson was wearing a black New York Knicks hat and had more than a few visible tattoos. He has “Loyalty is Royalty” in script on the outside of his left forearm, the inside of which has a cross with the word “Spark” — a nickname — on it. His right forearm is covered in dollar signs and stars. “This guy is Harlem,” Rice said. “Not that long ago, he was running around these streets, getting his lunch money stolen.”

Wilson, now 25 and studying at Nyack College, joined a gang at 15 and dropped out of high school at 16. One night, he got a scary phone call saying that his brother and a few friends got jumped. His brother’s hands were broken with a brick and his head was beaten with a pipe. He was in a coma for three days. When he woke up, he didn’t recognize anyone. “He didn’t know who I was,” Wendell says in a Young Life video. “And more than that hurting, it was a moment that woke me up.”

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Aswan Morris and his son at a neighborhood dinner hosted by Renaissance.

Not long after that, Wilson met Aswan Morris, the director of Harlem Young Life and (now) Rice’s right-hand man. Morris was standing outside of a church when he saw Wilson and a friend walking by and invited them to join for pizza and a movie. A few weeks later, Wilson attended a Young Life camp in Maryland, and it was in his talks there that he says he “finally got the Christ thing.” Now, he’s also a Young Life leader.

Wilson is exactly the type of person Rice has in mind for Renaissance. Since Wilson grew up in the hood, he personally knows the good (a flourishing hip-hop scene and emphasis on community) and the bad (poverty and gang prevalence) of life in Harlem. It’s Wilson, who talks out of the right side of his mouth and drops his Rs (“Ha-lem”), who Jordan wants to be the face of his church.

“We’ll put him up to talk, and if it offends you that he talks a certain way, get the hell out of here,” Jordan said. “Bye. So we do stuff to weed people out.”

But just as much as Rice is passionate about not being a church that excludes people from the neighborhood, he’s also not about being a church that’s just for African Americans. It’s something he’s intentional, strategic about in more ways than one. In thinking of hiring an executive pastor, he was almost exclusively evaluating a white candidate — and in fact ended up hiring him for the job.

“If somebody white were to walk in our church and everybody on staff is black and the music is black — even if we say we’re welcoming and want to be inclusive, it wouldn’t matter. It’d be like, ‘Yeah, sure.’”

He remembers his first time walking into the church he would later intern at and seeing all white faces in the congregation and all white faces on the staff. When he left, he resolved not to go back — and he didn’t, for about four years.

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The Renaissance team with people from the community at a neighborhood dinner.

So his goal is just to do things that make sense in Harlem. That means frequently incorporating rap or spoken word into the worship mix. If the church does five worship songs, he wants two that appeal to culturally white people, two that appeal to culturally black people, and one that nobody knows. That way, everyone hears something they’re comfortable with and can grow to like the unfamiliar ones.

Rice said intentionally cultivating that diversity is a mindset. It’s preaching. And it’s a message to the congregation that the church exists for the community, not the people who’ll be gone in a year or two.

“They don’t want to change the neighborhood,” Rice said of his core team. “They love it. Do they want safety and good schools? Of course. Everybody does. But they’re just so much more flexible culturally.”

“I loved what [Harlem] was becoming.”

For the past year, Jordan’s core team has met for community group Wednesdays at 7 p.m. in the apartment on West 121st Street that he shares with his wife, Jessica. The group prays together, reads scripture together, and eats together.

Renaissance Church’s neighborhood dinner at Harlem Garage.

When I went, we had smoked chicken, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese from Best Yet Market down the block. The group was younger (mostly under 35), but proportioned well racially (three white, eight black) for the neighborhood’s ethnic mix. Both gentrifying young professionals and lifelong residents of the projects are on the team.

“I loved the beauty of what Harlem was and what it represented, but I also loved what it was becoming,” Rice said. “If our church is not helping to reach the kids in grant houses, then why are we there? We want to be bringing the love of God to people from the grant houses to Vinateria, a really nice, new restaurant down the block, and everywhere in between.”

All images courtesy of Jordan Rice/Renaissance Church.

Corrie Mitchell
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