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At intersection of hoops and hip-hop, Hub teens find Jesus

Liz Hoffman | 7/30/2009, 8:08 a.m.

There is a group of young men gathered at mid-court, and there is a basketball. From a distance, it looks like the start of any other pickup game, when players jockey for position at center court to await the tip-off.

But this is not kind of basketball that the court at the Anthony Perkins Community Center usually sees. There is no jersey tugging, elbow nudging or trash talking.

Instead, the young men are praying

Then their heads lift, eyes open, and one young player takes the ball to the top of the key and checks it in. On the first play, he drives sharply down the lane and scores with a strong post-up move.

This scene played out this summer, as it did each of the past six summers, at the weekly games of the Christian Basketball League. Shepherded by a local hip-hop producer and a collection of area churches, the league is Boston’s hip-hop-infused chapter of a nationwide movement that has grown in popularity in the past decade: basketball ministries.

“It’s almost like a language barrier,” said Alvin Lewis, president of the Focus Entertainment Group, a Roxbury-based production company for Christian hip-hop artists, and the league’s founder. “If I’m talking to someone who speaks Spanish, we won’t get too much out of it, but if I know some Spanish and he knows some English, we can communicate.

“It’s the same thing with us talking to young people about faith,” he continued. “The music and the basketball give us a common vocabulary.”

Headed by a joint effort of Focus Entertainment and the House of Deliverance Church of God in Dorchester, the league has brought together area youth in competition, brotherhood and prayer for six years.

Lewis founded the league in 2001 and was recognized for his work that year with a “Hidden Heroes” award from the City of Boston. He says that his league creates a place for teens to find God, and for God to find them, at the intersection of music, ministry and basketball.

“Bringing the three together creates an atmosphere for our kids to be influenced through religion,” said David Edwards, a 21-year-old Arlington native who has been involved with the league as a player and a coach since its inception. “We use basketball like a fishing net to bring them in, and Christian hip-hop puts a whole new twist on something they already know. By combining them, we’re able to bring a message to these teens that they otherwise might not respond to.”

The Christian Basketball League is part of a growing trend that is changing American ministry. While the hip-hop element that Focus Entertainment brings is unique to Roxbury, there are thousands of Christian-influenced basketball leagues, camps and church-based groups across the country.

Brent Fuqua, 41, is the founder and director of Hoops of Hope Basketball Ministry based in Colorado Springs, Colo. He is also an ordained pastor.

“As a minister, you want to go where people are already and make a connection there,” said Fuqua, who worked with Athletes in Action, a nationally recognized sports-based ministry, for five years before founding Hoops of Hope in February of 1996. “Where people already are is sports, so that’s where we go.”

That’s a lesson Lewis knows well. A Roxbury native, Lewis grew up playing basketball in a town league in Stoughton and knows the role of the sport in black culture and in the lives of the area’s youth. He feels that adding the new element of Christian hip-hop to his own ministry makes it a better fit in Roxbury and neighboring areas.

“You walk down the street in certain neighborhoods around here and you see kids playing pickup [ball],” he said. “The music is blaring while they’re playing, and it’s always hip-hop. It’s something that’s uniquely ours and it’s a way of communicating within the black community.”

As such, the league’s games are all played with a hip-hop soundtrack pulsing in the background to introduce teens to a spiritual message wrapped in backbeats and verses.

“Hip-hop just reaches the guys,” said Wesy Gallimore, 37, who has been a coach, player and referee since the league’s inception. “A lot of them don’t know anything but hip-hop and won’t listen to anything else but hip-hop. They hear the beat and they start realizing that the beat is good, but the lyrics are about God.”

According to Lewis, the league’s religious aspect isn’t really about just promoting Christianity; it’s a way to impress upon kids the importance of social compassion, spirituality and community strength.

“It’s more about putting the ministry and everything it can teach us out on the streets,” he said. “It’s not limited to one faith and it’s not limited to Sundays; we’re concerned with what you do the rest of the week, too.”

Teen players are invited to church functions several times a month, part of an effort by the league’s coaches and older ballers to carve a more direct path to worship for the youngsters. Some go and some don’t, said Gallimore, but all are welcome.

“A lot of people around here, they try their hardest to have a connection with God, but they don’t always know where to start,” said Vanessa Lewis, Alvin’s niece, who helped out in the early years of the league. “I’ve seen a lot of team players also begin to go to church on their own, just from the experience of playing [in the league].”

With his league having wrapped up its sixth year this fall, Lewis believes it is filling an important role in the community. By infusing the street-level appeal of basketball and hip-hop with the message of the ministry, the Christian Basketball League is creating a positive message in a language that the community can understand.

“We’re looking to project a more positive outlook in what’s happening nowadays in the Boston area, and especially with the African American community,” Lewis said. “We want to show that even though we have a lot of negative things happening, with crime or poverty or whatever it is on a particular day, there are still positive things happening around the area.”