A teen preacher plots his North Philly takeover-- one sermon at a time.
In the small storefront church, the pastor stands behind the makeshift pulpit, slowly rocking from left to right. He begins his Sunday morning sermon in the unhurried drawl of an old Baptist minister, but he soon blends his message with a rapid mix of verses and song.
His hands flutter in the air, his voice raises to a shout, and he struts down the narrow aisle, preaching words of hope and redemption. The congregation responds with cheers of "Amen" and "Yes, Lord," pushing their pastor--17-year-old Damaris Y. Walker--for more.
"Just when you feel like giving up," Walker tells his congregation, "God will reach into you and give you joy, joy, joy--great joy. Ain't no joy like the joy of the Lord!"
On most days Damaris Walker is "Dee," wearing a T-shirt, jeans and Timberland boots. But on Sundays he's Pastor Walker, decked out in a suit and tie, with a Bible in hand. This weekend he'll be speaking at Gospel Rama, an annual event in North Philadelphia in which hundreds of ministers, singers, rappers and poets go out into the street and spread the word of God.
"This is an opportunity to have folks to cry out, 'What must I do to be saved?'" says Walker. "It's all about Jesus, and he said there's room at the cross for the lost. That's why we're going to do this Gospel Rama--to let people know that there's room for them too."
When Walker was only 8 years old, he'd stand outside his North Philadelphia home, trying to preach the sermons of his godfather, the Rev. Dr. Donald Lyons. At 14, he became an ordained minister. By 16, he was pastor of Healing and Deliverance Church, a congregation of about 20, located at 19th and Girard. And today, when Walker stands outside his door, people still say, "There's that preacher boy."
Marna Clemonts, 47, coolly remembers Walker as a child who "had a mouth on him." But that had changed by the time her daughter, then 15, brought her to Walker's church last September.
"I had been going from church to church, but when I first went to his church and heard him preach, I knew I was going to join," says Clemonts. "I go to church to hear the word, and God really gave this guy a gift. Even though he's young, he's all right."
But some are unconvinced. Walker, a rising senior at Parkway Program, says one local minister describes him as a "boy trying to do a man's job."
"I can't even get upset with them," Walker says of his critics. "I just say we have to break down the walls of tradition. You don't have to be gray or baldheaded to be a pastor. It may mean you have experience, but I've met plenty who were gray and bald, and didn't have the wisdom that one would expect and assume. I know because I've counseled them.
"My age has been a tremendous advantage because it's been an encouragement to the young and the old that God works miracles and God still does the impossible. I mean, if Bow Wow can rap and be a multimillionaire, Walker can preach."
Walker says Satan has often tried to knock him off his path. When he was 13, neighborhood drug dealers would often try to recruit him, saying he could make thousands of dollars a week. And since third grade, he's struggled to overcome a speech impediment. But his biggest challenge yet is to take over North Philadelphia with his ministry.
"It's all about Jesus and preaching his gospel," says Walker. "I want to restore families and repair marriages and transform this area from a drug neighborhood. I believe people who need help aren't choosy about who provides that help, and we provide something that they are in need of, which is love. It's hard not to take that seriously."
This fall, Walker's church will start a youth ministry, which will provide mentoring, Bible study and outings for neighborhood kids. And by Dec. 31, Walker wants to have 60 adult members sitting in his church on Sunday mornings.
"There's an old song that says, 'We've come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord,'" says Walker. "That's our motto. Where this church is going no devil in hell can stop it."
Gospel Rama, hosted by the Minute by Minute Recovery Program. Sat., Aug. 23, 10am-8pm. 2562 N. 18th St. 215.223.8996
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