Grammy nominated hip-hop artist Flame (whose given name is Marcus Gray) opened for Will Graham and Newsboys at the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration at the Great Auditorium on May 21. Urban Faith News & Religion Editor Christine A. Scheller spoke to him before his set. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: People don’t necessarily connect hip-hop with graduate education, but you’re studying for a master’s degree in counseling.
FLAME: Hip-hop is an urban expression. It grew out of, I won’t say a rebellious spirit, but it was very outspoken and typically on a street level. It was expressive of social issues and things of that nature, but eventually I think guys realized a better way to impact people with their worldview is through education. Even from my perspective as a Christian artist wanting to forward a Christian message to the world, I thought it would be great to marry education with hip-hop ministry. That way it could be more potent.
What does that look like in practical terms?
It’s so crazy because music, I believe, really under-girds the counseling. If you can do songs centered around the things you hear in a private sessions concerning identity in Christ, concerning deep-seated issues, the repetitive nature of music, hip hop in particular, is like sermonettes over music, so it reinforces what you hear and hopefully it becomes repetitious.
Do you incorporate what you’ve learned in school into your songs?
Absolutely. That’s my goal. There is a song titled “Tonight” and it’s like prayer requests, but it’s the heart of the believer to be closer to our God. It’s very specific in the things we should turn away from and things we should turn to, as a result of putting off sin and putting on righteousness. That’s one of the songs that stands out to me.
How do you study and travel?
The cool thing is [I take] week intensive classes, so we pack a semester into a short period of time. Those are very convenient for my lifestyle right now. It’s rotisserie style for me in the Master’s degree. I’m enjoying it though. I have two more years, then a Master’s thesis and all that fun stuff.
What are the challenges of being on the road and how do you deal with them?
It’s been a great thing to travel with my wife. The friendship. The accountability. She’s my best friend. We’re business partners as well. One of the challenges is knowing when to check out, in the sense of we’re so in front of people and always doing things concerning the music ministry, so it kind of gets intertwined. It’s like: where do we cut this thing off and just be a couple? That’s probably one of the biggest challenges, but we try to take a vacation every year and celebrate our anniversary and make sure we’re very intentional. We also have accountability from our church home. Brothers and sisters who are praying for us, asking us hard questions, and making sure we’re prioritizing the right things.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) may not be the first organization people think of as a leader in reconciliation ministry, but at the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration that took place in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, on May 20-22, the ministry’s emphasis on diversity brought Christians together to meet the spiritual needs of an ethnically, racially, and denominationally diverse population, as the legendary evangelist’s grandson, William Franklin Graham IV, and others addressed enthusiastic crowds.
“For us to move into a city and begin to work with churches, it’s understood that we look for denominational and racial inclusiveness. It’s not something that we have to be told. It’s in the BGEA DNA, and that goes back to Dr. Graham’s commitment to racial inclusiveness,” said Rod Barnett, director of BGEA’s North American crusade field staff.
Christians counseling new believers at the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration
“We look at the number of churches in each denomination and make sure that at least the top five or six denominations are represented on our executive committee. And then we look at the ethnic mix. … The strategy of each of these committees is they have a reach into each of these areas that nobody else does,” said Celebration director Terry Wilken, adding that BGEA requires women and business leaders to be represented as well.
Owen Alston is pastor of Harmony Ministries in Lakehurst, New Jersey, and was on the executive committee for the Jersey Shore Celebration. Alston said he’d met and become friends with pastors of white churches that he wouldn’t have otherwise met.
“Most of the pastors and leaders project unity. They push for it, but they still have to deal with all the people in their congregations,” said Alston.
“I’ve put extra effort into mobilizing what we would consider the black churches to get them on board and to allow this to be a tool to help break down the racial barriers. What’s unfortunate is I’m getting more negative input from the black community than I am from the white,” he said.
Alston had invited nine black pastors to participate when UrbanFaith talked to him this spring and only two had declined. UrbanFaith was unable to contact these two pastors.
“It’s always challenging convincing the churches that we want them to be involved. … That happens in almost every city,” said Wanda McCurdy, a longtime BGEA employee and the only African American staff member on site at the Jersey Shore Celebration.
“The Graham Association always goes the extra mile to make sure everyone is involved and has opportunities,” she said.
James Taylor Jr. teaching youth in preparation for the Jersey Shore Will Graham Celebration
James Taylor Jr. taught at a series of youth training events before the Celebration. He had previously volunteered with BGEA after his predominantly African American church didn’t want to support its efforts to host a festival in his city, he said.
“It was kind of more of a politic thing,” said Taylor. “What are you going to do for us as blacks? But I felt like it would really help integrate our students, because what was a problem for me was that I had so many black students and white students at a predominantly African American church. … I knew when the Graham festival came, that was a way for our kids to see more diversity,” he said.
Now Taylor pastors a racially and ethnically diverse church in Portsmouth, Virginia. He said BGEA’s diversity commitment is one of the top two reasons he works with the organization.
“[Dr. Graham’s’] concept of racism was basically that it’s not just a social problem, that the root of racism is sin. The only way to overcome that sin is through Jesus Christ. It’s the changed heart of an individual. You’re not going to legislate it. He was saying you gotta’ change the human. That’s always been BGEA’s stance,” said Barnett.
Alston said denominational “spirits” are just as bad as racial ones, but both were overcome at the Celebration through the prayers of spiritually mature people.
“Our prayers were to break down these barriers. We really shouldn’t have to break them down. Jesus already did that. He broke down the wall of partition, but here again the adversary has built them back up. It takes concerted effort to [break them down] and if you don’t do it, it won’t happen,” said Alston.
Barnett recalled a 2006 event in Gainesville, Florida, where there had been a white ministerial group and a black ministerial group that had never worked together.
“As an outcome, at the end of the festival, there had been such a movement between these two groups and a softening of the heart that when we finished the festival there, two weeks after the festival, both ministerial groups met and dissolved and they formed one ministerial group,” said Barnett.
“[Dr. Graham] had one single focus and that was leading people to the cross, leading them to Christ. For us to do that way of evangelism, you work through the local church and when you work through the local church and that is your single focus, one of the outcomes is a better sense of unity,” he said.
On June 25-26, BGEA will hold its first ever bi-lingual American Hispanic Festival at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles. According to its website, more than 600 Hispanic churches are involved.
“The Hispanic population in southern California is looked at and treated many times as second-class citizens,” Festival co-chair Danny de Leon told BGEA. “For a Crusade to come for them sends a very important message that they are loved and cared for.”
Barnett said Franklin Graham’s interest in this community is born of his passion for people.
“You look back through Dr. Graham, and you look back with Franklin and with Will, there is a passion to reach people for Christ. And with them, it doesn’t make a difference who they are, where they’ve come from, what their background is, what color their skin is. They realize that everyone stands in need of the savior, and they want to reach as many people as they possibly can,” said Barnett.