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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Tommy Kyllonen has turned his passion for hip-hop into a music career, a book deal and an innovative way to draw people to God.
By Sean Daly, Times Pop Music Critic
Published August 12, 2007
Tampa's Tommy Kyllonen is "the hip-hop pastor," spreading the word of god through raps and rhymes. He's just released both an autobiography and a CD on a major publisher and a major label. He raps under the name Urban D. His church is the Crossover Community Church, where this Sunday he will be rapping the word of God at 10 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.
[Ken Helle | Times]
[Ken Helle | Times]
Kyllonen met his wife, Lucy, while studying youth ministry at Southeastern University in Lakeland. The couple have two daughters, Deyana, 4, and Sophia, 1. Lucy is an administrator at Crossover.
TAMPA - After the beat-boxer and the DJ and the bass-heavy gospel quartet, after the throbbing light display and the swaying sing-along, the hip-hop pastor takes the stage:
"How's my ladies in the house? Make some noise!"
In an auditorium that is more nightclub than nave, where the pulpit is decorated like a Krylon spray paint can, the ladies obey with religious whoops "Praise Jesus!" and holy hollers ("Amen!").
Pastor Tommy Kyllonen, the visionary behind Tampa's Crossover Community Church, smiles big: "Yeah, that's what I like to hear."
In his baggy jeans and shiny Nikes - just what he wears for his other job as a major-label rapper - the long, lean man of God steps off the small stage and walks among his flock. His dark hair is in a ponytail, his goatee meticulously trimmed.
A few weeks ago, Kyllonen's sermon was called "MySpace: Is God Invited?" (The answer was yes, but let's steer clear of those naughty pictures, folks.) Today, the topic is heroes, specifically the biblical Esther and her relationship with King Xerxes.
Pastor Tommy starts riffing: "Yeah, so King X, he was doing it big, like P. Diddy in the Hamptons," drawing nods from a crowd as versed in US Weekly as Holy Scripture. He likens parts of the Book of Esther to "a reality show, like Flavor of Love or I Love New York."
Kyllonen dims the lights and the seven flat-screen TVs around the room show scenes from a big-budget movie about Esther, who bravely confronted Xerxes to save the Jewish people.
"Esther stood up and represented," the pastor says later. "If more people did that, the world would be a different place."
That's the word of Tommy Kyllonen, a preacher's kid who has merged the three things he loves most - God, hip-hop and helping others - to create a new ministerial approach. He calls it "un.orthodox," a term he explains more in his music, where he takes on his rapping alter ego, Urban D.:
"Un.orthodox, we break your stereotypes, we shake your radio right, we let you know Christ rocks!"
Since 1996, when Kyllonen was hired by Crossover as a youth pastor, the congregation at the nondenominational church has swelled from 40 to more than 500. On Sundays, the parking lot often overflows for blocks in the church's Lowry Park neighborhood.
Kyllonen, who became head pastor in 2002, is spreading his methodology far beyond Tampa. The 33-year-old writes about his life and ministry in a new book, Un.orthodox: Church, Hip-Hop, Culture, which was published this year by major Christian house Zondervan. It features a cover blurb by Rick Warren, megachurch pastor and author of the Purpose Driven Life series. The two pastors have become friends; Kyllonen refers often to Warren's work in his preaching.
Un.orthodox is also the title of Kyllonen's new Urban D. album, which is being distributed by the EMI Gospel label, big backing that means you can pick up the disc in just about any Borders or Best Buy. The beats are modern, the rhymes flow, the production has oomph. Urban D. can rap for sure, and his Christ-based messages are hip, vital, catchy. Urban D. has released several small-label albums over the years but says this is the first one that might make him some money.
Crossover attracts all ages, but Kyllonen built his congregation by focusing on kids. When he started, he didn't even have any youths to pastor, just four teenage girls showing up for free pizza.
So he hosted basketball tournaments. He hired graffiti artists to tag the walls. He cranked up the music, the big thumping beats, and sometimes even rapped parts of his sermons.
These days, Thursday's teen service pulls in dozens of kids. There's a skateboard park on campus; a hoops court, too. There's also child care geared to the needs of young parents.
The main message: Come as you really are.
"Here I can be myself," says 17-year-old Vince "Vinsane" Gitto, who credits Crossover for "taking away" his dope-smoking, club-hopping habits. "I fit in. Everybody's like I am."
"You don't have to come in a halo," says Eddy "Rawsrvnt" Puyol, a 28-year-old rapper from West Palm Beach who closed out a recent Sunday service with a ferocious performance. "It's about realness."
In the fall, Kyllonen holds an annual conference called Flavor Fest, in which religious and youth leaders from all over the country come to Tampa to learn his "un.orthodox" methods. Among them: "Break things up, keep the message moving."
It works for Gail Alonzo, a 60-year-old parishioner who looks like she could double for Estelle Getty on TV's Golden Girls. "I've been a Jehovah's Witness, I've been Catholic, but this is my final home," she says. "Pastor Tommy keeps you hopping."
Like preacher, like son
Pastor Tommy needs sleep. He's finding it harder to keep up. He recently missed two Sunday services in a row for the first time ever. He was out of town promoting his CD and touring on a bill with such rap luminaries as Kurtis Blow. It made him think about the creature comforts of the rap star life. But most of all, it made him miss home.
"If I went out on the road more, I'd make more money, and my life would be less stressful," he says. "But that's not God's plan for me."
Kyllonen refers often to "God's plan" shaping his life. But his father, Paul Kyllonen, a Pentecostal preacher, is his role model, and not just in his choice of profession.
In Un.orthodox, Tommy writes that his dad once encouraged a team of singers to ditch familiar hymns in favor of new gospel songs. He used an overhead projector to display lyrics, much to the consternation of longtime parishioners.
His father preached at five different churches during Tommy's childhood. But it was during a 10-year stay in Philadelphia that the "PK," or preacher's kid, learned to love rap music, especially Run-DMC and Public Enemy. He'd tape songs off the radio and play them over and over, memorizing the lyrics, mimicking the flow of provocative heroes Chuck D. and Flavor Flav. He formed a Christian rap group called the Urban Disciples, the source of his solo handle.
Kyllonen is of Greek, Finnish and Spanish heritage. His olive skin tone, he writes, made it tough for him to find acceptance from either whites or blacks in high school. But his skills at the microphone proved his salvation: Tommy could rap, so Tommy was cool. He'd never forget those days and what it felt like to be an outsider.
As Urban D., Kyllonen often rhymes about the temptations he encountered in the City of Brotherly Love, experiences that help him relate to the kids in his Tampa flock - and vice versa. But Kyllonen stresses that he gave himself to God before serious trouble found him.
"I was never into drugs," says Kyllonen. "I was always around that stuff. But being just around that, I can understand that stuff. I didn't live a perfect life, but at the same time, I never went totally out there. Sometimes the greatest lessons are learned through other people."
Kyllonen studied youth ministry at Southeastern University in Lakeland, where he met his wife, Lucy. After graduation, he took an internship at First Assembly of God in Clearwater, and quickly landed at Crossover. Now Lucy, too, works at the church, as an administrator. The couple have two young daughters, Deyana and Sophia.
A few years ago, Tommy's father suffered a devastating aneurysm. Betty Kyllonen says her husband "doesn't really know what Tommy is doing these days."
She pauses: "But he would be so proud."
The hip-hop pastor doesn't listen to much hip-hop these days - at least not the secular kind. He'll tune into BET and MTV every now and then to stay current, to keep Urban D. sounding fresh. But truth be told, the hip-hop pastor thinks a lot of mainstream rap - especially megastar 50 Cent - is a joke.
"Listen, half the stuff 50 Cent raps about - he's been shot, he's a gangsta, he's a thug - that's not even who he is now," says Kyllonen, relaxing in his cramped church office, the walls bedecked with posters of such Philly brethren as Rocky Balboa and Dr. J.
"50 lives in Mike Tyson's old mansion. He doesn't even go into the city."
Kyllonen says most rap is "about hypermaterialism. It's unrealistic for the average person. People that are growing up, in their 20s and 30s, their 40s, that are into hip-hop, we have kids now, we have teenagers - we're realizing that's not good for our kids."
The music industry is in a tailspin these days; hip-hop sales have plummeted. Kyllonen thinks it's partly because of rap's negative messages. But Crossover has been a success, he says, because it represents the pure power of hip-hop, as a culture and as a genre. His music, his message has nothing to do with gangsta thuggery and booty-shaking, and everything to do with pride and praise.
"I think there's always going to be that crowd that's going to be looking for something different, for something positive," says Kyllonen.
"I'm not going to be naive and say (Christian hip-hop) is going to take over. That's not realistic. Our flesh loves sin. Not everybody's going to choose to follow God or follow the right things. But do I think there's a market for what we do? Absolutely. But (rap fans) haven't been given a choice."
The kids are all right
It's Thursday night, teen night. Vince "Vinsane" Gitto has just won a breakdancing contest; his chest puffs with pride. Pastor Tommy surveys his world with a serene smile.
In a few years, Crossover will top 1,000 members, he figures. He's not sure how they'll manage that. But neither he nor his limited staff are worried.
"Things would be easier if the church was smaller," Lucy says. "At the same time, there's excitement in letting God lead us."
Tonight Pastor Tommy preaches about going to a DMX concert at Jannus Landing in St. Petersburg. DMX is a hardcore rapper with a troubled past and a murky future. His biggest hit is the utterly profane, utterly catchy Party Up (Up in Here).
The kids are laughing and clapping as Kyllonen talks about seeing members of his congregation at the show.
"People don't expect to see me at a thing like that, so they'll be hiding beers and stuff behind their back," he says.
The kids are roaring now.
Kyllonen says he finally made it backstage to see DMX - this clearly impresses his listeners, who ooh and ahh.
Then he hits them with it: "I asked if I could pray with him."
The room falls silent.
"And it was cool to pray with this cat who has been spiritually searching. God put him in my heart. I'd really like to get through to him."
Pastor Tommy waits, lets the silence linger. And then, finally: