BRONX, NY (January 7, 2016) – Elements Covenant Church doesn’t have a worship band, they have a DJ; pastor Efrain (Brother E.) Alicea’s sermons aren’t just preached, they’re occasionally interspersed with rap; and the walls don’t have artwork hanging on them, they are painted with graffiti.
Still Alicea is quick to say, “Everyone calls us a hip-hop church. We don’t. We just call ourselves church.” That is because the church is simply living out of its cultural context just like any other congregation.
“If you look at what entails culture, you need language, moral standards, art, music, fashion, faith, and other things—they all make up culture,” Alicea said. “Graffiti is part of the hip-hop culture. It is a form of urban expression that our people identify with. It is home for them. It is using the gifting, the expression of our culture.”
The entryway and several rooms also have graffiti on the walls. A classroom for children depicts the parting of the Red Sea, and a room used by older students and as a meeting room has a Scripture verse graffitied on the wall.
“We have original artwork by people who know what they are doing,” Alicea said. That includes church member Chez, who has done several works and also taught graffiti classes.
The church recently hosted Mistery, an artist and rapper who worked with several people from the church on new works. “When it’s done right, when it’s done for the sake of art, when it’s done legally, when people invite artists, they do some incredible things,” added Alicea, who is a friend of the artist.
Alicea said he has standards for the artwork. “For people who are not exposed to graffiti on a regular basis, it can seem like craziness, you can’t understand it,” he said. “So first, I made sure it was something that could be understood. One of them doesn’t have any words, just Jesus with children.”
Elements rents the building, which it moved into last year. While many owners would be more than averse to having graffiti on their buildings, Alicea says, “He loves it.”
Alicea said that is another reason Elements’ new location is ideal. The church has launched a $48,000 GoFundMe campaign to cover the cost of one year’s rent, which the pastor said will enable the congregation to offer additional ministries in the struggling Bronx neighborhood.
Those ministries included helping people develop their graffiti skills. The artwork will serve as further inspiration for a class that Chez plans to teach. A previous class was packed out, and Alicea expects the upcoming offering to be equally popular.
The church also is starting other arts-related classes including break dancing as well as beginner guitar and percussion classes. In addition, adult students will be able to take courses to help them prepare to obtain their GEDs and commercial drivers licenses.
“We believe that through the arts, education, and community service, we can make a major difference in our city,” Alicea said.