As a teenager, Adam Durso became alienated from the church culture in which he had been raised. His parents, Michael and Maria Durso, had taught him all the correct Sunday school answers. But he didn’t feel it was really him saying them. Deep down, he didn’t know what he truly believed. He resented that his parents had given up a successful business to become church planters. He was ready to escape his parents and their Christian lifestyle. He found some relief by moving to attend Johnson and Wales University.
Durso’s parents were not very supportive of his move because they feared that their son was spiraling into trouble. He maintained a respectable 3.6 GPA, which should have reassured his parents unless they had tripped upon the knowledge about how their son was supporting himself. He had launched a small drug-related dealership connected with New York City’s drug-central, Washington Heights.
However, Durso was too cautious to make enough money to adequately cover all the expenses of college and living away from home. In a typical Millennial move, he called his parents.
The only help his father was willing to offer was a steady job sweeping out the church. One night in 1996, he attended a service that his father was preaching. “I couldn’t tell you what the sermon was on,” he admitted, but something in the dark sanctuary spoke to him. Sitting there, he had the revelation, “That’s my God!”
This was a crucial step toward claiming his own faith. “I needed to know that God was real for me, not just for my parents,” he reflected. Yet, he looked around and realized that there were less than 100 kids in the quickly growing Christ Tabernacle. The church’s connection to Brooklyn Tabernacle’s award-winning gospel choir sustained it’s popularity with the older generation, but did not make it a hotspot for the youth.
A few months later, Durso stood with his best friend, Ralph Castillo, in his parents’ kitchen late at night as they had done many times before. Incongruously decked out in plaid Gap pajamas, Durso talked about hip hop. He told Castillo about his plan to draw youth into the church through a hip-hop gospel ministry.
Millinneal road back #Bushwick #Brooklyn
In the early 1990s, hip hop was the language of Brooklyn and each neighborhood had its own representative. Jay-Z put Bed-Stuy on the map when he claimed the title of Brooklyn’s Finest with his first album in 1996. Soon after, he discovered 16-year-old Foxy Brown in Park Slope and featured her alongside other guest artists like Mary J Blige and Biggie Smalls. That same year, the duo M.O.P. delivered an ode to their locale Brownsville and scored a deal with Relativity Records. Lil’ Kim, Yasiin Bey, and Talib Kweli also rose to national prominence from their Brooklyn roots.
The Bushwick hip hop scene remained largely a coven of insiders. Without a single figure representing the neighborhood, the underground culture emphasized collaboration and community. Posses like Finsta Bundy and Da Beatminerz composed and performed around neighborhood centers like Irving Square Park. The artistic collective The Arsonists developed near Knickerbocker Park as an alternative to the drug and gang culture that surrounded hip hop.
Durso saw an opportunity to engage young hip hop hopefuls by offering them the church basement in which to compose and practice together. Because hip hop culture also values mentorship between experienced artists and greenhorns, having a hip hop group in the church would allow a natural youth connection. However, he knew the group would have to come from the kids themselves.
The tendency of too many church outreaches is to see a thriving youth culture and then try to recreate that culture on their own turf, says Durso. Sometimes it worked but the kids were not really committed to staying if a new trend came along. He compared this to taking fish out of a thriving natural ecosystem to stock a hatchery’s artificial pond. The conditions in the artificial setting are not as hearty and the slightest disturbance can throw the entire system off balance. The fish have a lower rate of survival than the ones in the natural habitat. In the same way, trying to catch teens and young adults and drag them out of their environment in a contrived replication. It tends to kill the culture and alienating the teens.
Further, can an older generation of leaders really lead a rebellion against themselves? Hip-hop culture grew as a rejection of the main stream. If the youth culture outside of the church moves on quickly, the church has to start all over without the fuel of natural rebelliousness. There is no natural outgrowth based on the teen’s own deconstruction and creativity.
Durso believed that churches needed to let the young people of Bushwick to create their own habitation. So, a few months after his kitchen conversation in 1996, he began Youth Explosion, to return control of culture and ministry to the kids themselves.
Mia Hunt, Youth Explosion, 2007.
Youth Explosion was a chance to highlight the talent of the kids he knew were around the church. He wanted it to be a place where they could be encouraged rather than being lampooned for their music. Durso and his leaders took on a role of guiding mentorship. The principle of the interaction was that the youth would be the pilots of the ship with the youth pastors on board as guides through uncharted waters.
He pulled together a group of 18 teenagers who were into music and hip hop, (who included 16-year-old Jonathon Lammering, who loved playing drums, Andre Garcia, and 14-year-old Jamie Rivera who could sing). Every week the teens met up at the church to compose, practice, and perform concerts and open mics.
The group quickly grew as kids invited their friends, demonstrating the cliché Durso had heard that “Shepherds don’t produce sheep, sheep produce sheep.” When the group had grown to 250 by 1999, they moved from using the church basement to the upstairs sanctuary. The magic of that time was that the kids didn’t want to leave the church. Durso laughed, “parents and volunteers would call me up complaining, these kids won’t go home! Kids were ringing the bell downstairs all the time, asking if they could come in.”
In 2010, Durso’s younger brother Chris suggested changing the name from Youth Explosion to Misfit NYC. The change was inspired by the translation of 1 Corinthians 4:10 in the Message version of the Bible.
“We are the Messiah’s misfits,” is Eugene Peterson’s rendition of the verse. The identity “misfit” reflects the discomfiture of being a young Christian in what feels like a double-whammy of an aggressively secular city with irrelevant churches. In calling themselves ‘misfits’, the youth of Christ Tabernacle defy the condemnation that comes with being different from both secularists and old-style Christians. The community of Misfit gives city youth a place to belong to, an alternative to mass secular culture without needing to ascribe to the institutions of their parents.
Now, though styles of hip-hop have changed, the Misfits remain.
Pastor Adam Durso on NYPD Officer Rafael Ramos:
Ralph Ramos was a long-standing member of 14 years at Christ Tabernacle. When he was not working, he was highly involved in our church. He served as an usher, was part of our marriage ministry and life group ministry. He and his family are well loved throughout the congregation.
Ralph was definitely a family man. He always talked about his kids and how well they were doing athletically and academically. He loved his family and his church.
He had an infectious and disarming smile. Our motto at Christ Tabernacle is "No Place Like Home" and Ralph was one of the faithful ushers who made Christ Tabernacle feel like home! ...He was a humble man and was willing to help at any capacity...
He leaves behind his wife, Maritza and two sons -- Justin and Jayden -- plus a host of family and friends. This is a tragic loss for us as a church, but we are committed to Maritza, Jaden and Justin to give them what Ralph gave us week in and week out.
On the night of the attacks, our pastors, life group members and Police Officers from this church stood together in solidarity at the hospital.
On behalf of our Senior pastor, Michael Durso, we are continuing to pray for the Liu and Ramos families. We are also praying for the NYPD, the mayor's office and the 8.4 million people who call NYC home.