Thank God for Hip Hop
By Jeannie Rodriguez
The First Presbyterian Church of Miami Springs stands along the corner of Westward and Morningside Drive occupying two-thirds of the triangular block.
Its modest architecture looks like that of any church located in South Florida. But, what happens beyond these white walls is anything but ordinary.
Music can be followed to the second floor of the building where three young men practice windmills, flairs, and head spins.
Next door, four people sit on one of eight couches in a graffiti decorated lounge, laughing as they watch the comedic duo Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro in “Meet the Fockers” on the screen projector.
Hip-hop missionary, Joel Stigale, sits behind a small counter in the corner of the room. Behind him hangs a large poster that reads “Catalyst.”
Catalyst is a youth program organized to give MC’s, DJ’s, break dancers (b-boys and b-girls), and graffiti artists a place to practice their art, while also providing a venue to learn the word of God.
Hundreds of young people have participated in the project since its inception in September of 2008. The group meets on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights for bible study and practice time.
“I started Catalyst because I realized there was a real need for God and hip-hop to combine,” said Stigale, the founder and director of Catalyst. “Catalyst means something that causes a reaction to occur. We’re trying to be that bridge between the street and the church.”
The program aims to provide a safe haven for creativity to flow and for friendships to fester, Stigale said. About 200 people actively participate in the project with kids as young as five years old and adults older than 60 routinely visiting the free program.
“We primarily reach out to the four elements of hip-hop: MC’s, DJ’s, b-boys, and graffiti artists,” Stigale said, “but we’ve always been a place where anybody, regardless of who you are, how you look, or what you dress like, can come in and feel welcomed.”
Catalyst tries to hold MC battles and b-boy jams at least once a month, because it’s what brings in the biggest crowds.
“Our church is awesome. They donated two rooms to the organization for a bunch of people who vandalize, drop paint, and cost money and we’ve never paid a bill,” Stigale said.
Down stairs, a long strip of wall at the center of the building is covered from end to end in colorful graffiti; the word CATALYST stands out among the rest of the art.
The orange, blue, and yellow colored word sits atop a two-dimensional cloud. On the side, a brown cross is painted with a microphone at its center.
“I understand the culture well enough to know that they have to do what they do,” Stigale said. “The graffiti wall gets a lot of kids off the streets but it’s very controversial. No matter how you frame it, graffiti will always be illegal. So for us to have a legal graffiti wall, well, it generates a lot of interest.”
Charles “Minus” Ochoa, a graffiti artist and former battle MC, says that Catalyst brought him a sense of hope when his life was going nowhere.
Now, Ochoa is a graphic designer. He met his mentor while attending Catalyst, and has been able to acquire a new set of skills that have helped him in his career; something he feels would have never happened had he not gone to Catalyst.
“It’s made me a much more positive person,” Ochoa said. “I used to be bad.”
MC artist, Craig “Thee Incredible” Fennen, believes that Catalyst impacts everyone who walks through the door whether they’re familiar with the hip-hip culture or not.
“We get church elders in their 60s and 70s who come in to see what we’re doing,” Fennen said. “They’re amazed at the culture that is full of loud, boisterous, prideful people that will get so quiet when it comes time to bring the message.”
“Then you have the people of the culture surprised to find a place like Catalyst in a church. To get graffiti artists, DJ’s, MC’s, and b-boys all rounded up in the same place to share the culture and not feel like they’re stealing each others glory is a rare thing,” Fennen said.
Although it may seem like it to some, Catalyst is not trying to change the culture of hip-hop. They’re just trying to reach the culture.
“Our main goal is to turn the entire face of hip-hop toward Christ,” Stigale said.