Teacher-turned-Christian rapper teaches kids to pray through rap

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Susan Valot/KPCC

Joe Melendrez raps prayers with a group of kids at the recent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim.

There's "East Coast rap." There's "West Coast rap." And then there's "Rosary rap." One local Catholic teacher is trying to get kids to pray by rapping. He showed his stuff at the recent Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim.

Joe Melendrez waves his arm in front of a group of several hundred teens and pre-teens and gets them into his rapping groove.

The kids repeat after him, "Stand up, everybody with passion. Stand up, everybody take action. Stand up, for what you believe in. Our God is good and he's never leavin'."

"One more time!" Melendrez shouts, pumping up the crowd, as he bobs his head almost like the bobblehead Jesus that sits on the podium a few feet away.

Melendrez doesn’t look like your average religion teacher. He wears black tennis shoes, black jeans with keys dangling out of his pocket and a black T-shirt with graffiti writing. But below that graffiti is a picture of Mary holding Jesus. Melendrez is a religion teacher at Chaminade Middle School and High School in the San Fernando Valley.

"New times call for new methods, of ministry especially. And music is very popular in our culture today and it actually touches and affects a lot of people. And I felt that by using music as a vehicle of promoting prayer, we can enhance the prayer lives of students, of young people, of older people, of whoever and just hopefully make a movement of prayer," Melendrez says.

Melendrez came up with the idea of rapping the rosary when he was about the same age as the kids in the crowd. One of the parents who drove his carpool had the kids pray in the car. Melendrez began to experiment.

"I stumbled upon rapping the rosary because I was praying the rosary going to school and there were times when I felt like I was dozing or fading a little bit and I needed to stay in tune with the prayer," Melendrez says. "So I started saying it different ways and then I just started rapping it and got a little rhythm to it."

Then he started rapping the rosary in front of groups. Then it grew into a Christian rap album.

Fourteen-year-old Barbara King of Los Angeles says she really connected with rapping the rosary.

"This is really great because a lot of times they don’t really – they show you how to pray the rosary, but they don’t really get in touch with it," King says. "Something that a lot of kids like to do is hear rap. And when it’s something that we are able to communicate with and get a better understanding of, it really works."

This was the first time 17-year-old Marasa Billings of Chino Hills ever rapped the rosary.

"You’re able to pray the rosary now in a more interesting way that you – that a teenager is able to understand it more," she says. "Whereas, when you usually say it the traditional way, this way’s more appealing."

Melendrez says turning rap into prayer "doesn’t break any prayer rules," but it has to overcome the stereotype that rap's all about gangs, shootings and womanizing.

"Rap is literally a way of putting lyrics together," Melendrez says. "It is a style of poetry with beat and stuff like that. We associate it with the negative things ‘cause that’s what we see. But it doesn’t have to be that way."

Melendrez talks to the kids about God and praying, throwing in different prayer raps here and there.

"OK, we’ll switch it up a little bit," he says as he cranks up some music that sounds more like gangsta rap. "I want you guys to really feel this time, OK? So whatever you got, lift those prayers up. You got something going on? Let’s get rid of it. Here we go."

Melendrez starts rapping the "Our Father" prayer.

And whether it’s the "Our Father" or a prayer from the top of his head, for Joe Melendrez, rap opens the door to get kids to pray – and get closer to God.

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