With hands behind their backs, teens dressed in matching sweat suits filed into the gym at Central Juvenile Hall on a recent October morning. Girls sat on one side, boys on the other. Guards surrounded the hundred teens from Los Angeles County, sent to juvenile detention for crimes ranging from assault and theft to prostitution and drug offenses. In the front of the gym stood a 23-year-old spoken word poet with a mic. A rhythmic flow rolled through the curious onlookers.
"Money will go, cars will break down, friends will fall out, couples will break up, folks get old, the thing that sticks, man, is your soul," beat Chris Webb, a member of the Life in Christ ministry. The team of about 15 young Christian rappers and poets are touring Los Angeles - not at concert venues, but at juvenile halls and camps, sharing about God's redemption.
Though Webb's "The Only Thing" was only the first spoken word piece of the morning, fellow poet Sunsariay Cox noticed a young man in the front with tears already streaming down his cheeks.
"Webb must be hitting home," she said. "You could see the despair on this kid's face. Who knows what this kid is going through?"
Central Juvenile Hall is the seventh facility the poets have visited since the tour began in February. They plan to perform at a total of 16 juvenile hall facilities. The idea for the Life in Christ ministry started in 2011 with Nick Bravo, a 26-year-old rapper from Upland, Calif. Bravo had been performing at churches only a few times a year and remembers praying to God: "I'm really thankful, but can I have more opportunities? I really want to go preach the gospel."
Not long after, Bravo performed at a small church where a woman in the audience invited him to rap in Central Juvenile Hall one Sunday. After he performed two songs, the chaplain asked Bravo to come back, and eventually to go into every facility in the county.
Not wanting to perform solo, Bravo brought along some friends from Passion 4 Christ Ministry, a group of Christian poets that had formerly been a church, to cover the allotted two-hour slot.
The poets take their platform seriously: "This is not entertainment. It's not about the poetry; it's about saving lives," Cox said.
Their lyrics are steeped in themes like forgiveness, brokenness, hypocrisy, identity and the character of God. "Lord, you said come boldly to the throne of grace, but I'm so ashamed, I can barely pick up my face," raps Bravo in a song called "Beauty in the Darkness."
Many talk about their past struggles with temptations like lust, peer pressure, and drugs, but they emphasize what Christ has done to change their futures. The teens can relate to these themes and it is often the lyrics, rather than the beat, that grabs their attention, Webb said: "It's the gospel of Jesus Christ that pierces every single person who hears it."
Sometimes teens will write letters to the group, sent through the chaplains. Singer Anthony Salerno recalls one letter from a boy who wrote about how he had regularly attended church with his family, even though he was still heavily involved in a gang. He wrote that he hid his church attendance from friends, but after hearing from the young artists, some of whom also grew up in rough neighborhoods, he realized it was possible for him to live completely for Christ.
The response from this October's concert was not so different: Guards approached the group for CDs, teens asked for lyrics and begged for the group to come back.
Once the team finishes the juvenile hall tour, it will move on to perform in California's penitentiaries in 2013.
"God is increasing territory," said Cedric Brown, a director in Chaplain's Eagles of Los Angeles County. "And I'm all excited about it."