DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) — When the congregants took their seats at this small jewel-like church on recent Sunday morning, they saw neither a cross nor a Bible. Instead, a DJ occupied the altar, sitting in front of a controller and a laptop.
As the service began, the emcee — not a clergyperson — prompted visitors to take three deep breaths and exhale. A hip-hop artist grabbed the mic to rap a song called “I Believe in You.” After him, a local poet and recording artist spent 20 minutes reading from his poems — each prefaced with a biblical quote.
The monthly service at North Star Church of the Arts is the latest venture by one of Durham’s most acclaimed residents, architect Phil Freelon, before he died last month, and his wife, singer, jazz vocalist and composer Nnenna Freelon.
The couple, internationally respected in their fields — he, perhaps most famously, as the architect for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and she as a six-time Grammy Award nominee — had long wanted to leave their adopted city of Durham a legacy its residents might enjoy after they were gone.
After Phil's diagnosis of ALS in 2016, they put the plans in overdrive.
The couple bought a small Greek Revival-style church in a section near a downtown neighborhood once mostly African American but now fast transitioning into an entertainment hub and refashioned it as a venue for artistic and spiritual exploration.
The church opened in January, drawing 100 to 120 people to monthly Sunday services plus a host of other events, including a drumming circle, a dance party, a book reading, a puppet show, a visual art exhibit — even a rummage sale.
The Freelons — she is 65; he died July 9 at age 66 — were intent on creating a space for healing. Though the couple belonged to St. Titus Episcopal Church when their three children were younger, they had not attended in years, and their beliefs at the time of his death seemed in flux: After Phil died, the family put out a statement saying he had "joined the ancestors."
But the former Ephphatha Church, with its elegant arched windows and doorways, charmed them. Built in the 1930s as one of only four in the country exclusively for deaf worshippers, it had gone through several incarnations, most recently as a Pentecostal congregation. The Freelons upgraded the building and removed all but four of the 40 pews to make the space more flexible for multiple events.
They threw open the doors to people of all faiths and no faith — a place, Nnenna Freelon said, where “judgment is suspended.”
“Phil always said, ‘If you want something, you have to give that very same thing,’” she said. “We looked at ‘What would it look like if we created a healing sanctuary, not just for us but for everybody?'”
The Freelons' services have kept some of the trappings of church. Guest artists are called “celebrants,” and straw baskets are passed around midservice for offerings.
But the focus is on the arts and the ways in which artistic expression can be a vehicle for transcendence.
In its first nine months, Sunday services have featured the state’s poet laureate, Jaki Shelton Green, as well as a dance performance called “The Gospel According to Baba Chuck Davis,” in which some of the late American dancer and choreographer’s partners explained and demonstrated his dedication to African dance traditions.
The Freelons’ son, Pierce, a musician, social entrepreneur and candidate for the state Senate, is the church’s creative director and he has wanted to plan programs that allow people to experience spirituality through the arts.
When rapper Nipsey Hussle died in March, Freelon was proud of his parents' church for opening its doors to fans of Hussle's music who just wanted to sit, listen to his recordings and grieve his passing without a lecture or a sermon.
“It was so beautiful and so appropriate and so exactly what a church should be doing in a moment like that,” he said.
So far, the church has drawn an eclectic mix of devotees both African American and white, but particularly young artists, social activists and city boosters of different faith — and no faith — traditions.
Kamara Thomas, a singer-songwriter who has performed at the church and attended several of the Sunday services, said it was a welcome relief from the doctrine-bound Seventh-day Adventist church she grew up in.
“It’s in line with what I’ve been craving, which is a focus on the spiritual side of life and the need to gather as a community to practice our spirituality with as few boundaries and edicts and structures and as few limitations as possible,” she said.
The approach appears to speak to millennials who have found traditional Christian churches sexist, homophobic or patriarchal. One woman who showed her an art installation at North Star and has also attended other programs there said she grew up attending Methodist and Presbyterian churches but no longer does.
“After coming out as queer I felt like I couldn’t bring my whole self to those spaces,” said Monet Marshall, 29.
At North Star she said she felt she could be herself and has returned to attend other events after her installation, called “Insert Your Grandma’s Name,” had finished its run.
North Star — the name refers to the point in the sky that enslaved African Americans looked up to for inspiration — depends on a dedicated group of donors. It also rents out its space for special events.
Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies at Duke University, said it was the perfect spot for the class he is teaching this semester called “Dick Gregory and the History of Black Comedy.” The class meets twice a week; once on campus and a second time at North Star.
“I wanted a community partner and the North Star Church, given the reputation of the Freelons and the city of Durham, and that these are the kind of relationships they were hoping to create, it was a no-brainer,” he said.
Neal said the African American church has always been more than simply a religious institution. Most famously, of course, it was the locus of political and justice activism during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Today, some are reclaiming the church itself for other uses. He points to Temple University professor and CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill, who opened Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Philadelphia and recently expanded into an adjacent church.
With so many millennials dropping out of church and finding meaning and community in other settings, new gathering spaces — some even in old churches — were bound to emerge.
Nnenna Freelon, who sits on the North Star’s board of directors, said she doesn’t see herself as a pastor or religious leader. During Sunday services, she sits in the front pew, not on the altar.
“I know about the arts,” she said. “I know how arts in general have transformed our lives in very meaningful ways. I believe the spirit of divine is in all that. The arts seemed to be a perfect place where we can meet and talk.”