BREWER, Maine — “Turn to your neighbor, give him a high five and tell him to hang on,” the Rev. Brian Hurst told his congregation at Destiny Worship Center on a recent Sunday.
Hands black and white slapped each other as the minister preached in a fast-clipped cadence uncommon in New England congregations.
“Tell him to hold on, help is on the way,” Hurst continued. “That hope is Jesus. He can do for you what nobody else can do. He’s supernatural.
“You can call Ghostbusters if you want, but I will call on Jesus.”
Laughter, applause and a spattering of amens briefly interrupted Hurst’s sermon.
“People today put more trust in their horoscope than they put in God,” he said. “Ask yourself if there is a day in your life too hard for God to handle.
“He will replenish, revive, restore and protect you. Turn to your neighbor and say, ‘Whatever you’re going through, God can handle today.’”
‘Multicultural style church’
What makes Destiny different from other churches in the area is its racial diversity.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said in 1963 that the most segregated hour in America was at 11 a.m. Sundays in the nation’s churches. Nearly 50 years later, that statement still rings true.
Surveys from 2007 cited in the Jan. 11 issue of Time magazine show that fewer than 8 percent of congregations have a significant racial mix.
That has been especially true in Maine, where in 2008 African Americans made up just 1 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Hurst, a white Ohio native who has lived most of his life in Bangor, believes this year’s census will show that the state’s racial mix is changing. He founded Destiny last March to serve a racially and ethnically diverse population through music and ministry.
Services are held in the Next Generation Theatre in the back of Between Friends in downtown Brewer.
“My wife, Katey, and I felt there was a need for a multi-cultural style church in this area,” Hurst, 42, said recently. “We went around to churches to see what they were doing and tried to take the good and sort of apply it to what we were doing.
“We felt that nobody was doing this type of ministry,” he continued. “Maine’s population may be less than 1 percent African-American, but it is becoming more multicultural, catching up with the rest of the country. Our church is 40 to 50 percent African-American. That lets me know that there’s definitely a need for what we’re offering.”
Jessica Carlsen, 21, is part of what appears to be a growing number of blacks in the Bangor area. Last year, she came to Maine from Omaha, Neb., to be with her boyfriend, who is a student at the New England School of Communications.
“The first time we came here, everybody was so welcoming,” Carlsen, who works at a Bangor beauty salon, said after a recent service at Destiny. “I feel like when Pastor Brian speaks, he’s not telling you how to live your life, but giving you ways to live your life better.”
The difference at Destiny is not just in Hurst’s preaching style, which is similar to ministers who label themselves evangelical, but in the music as well. Hurst described it as a combination of Gospel and modern praise music, which focus on the solos and harmonies associated with black churches.
Carlsen is part of the church’s racially mixed Praise Team.
“I feel like when I sing I’m opening myself up to being in the moment with my spirituality,” she said. “People have different ways of connecting with God. The easiest way for me to do that is through singing.”
Hurst moved to Maine when his father, a Church of God minister, took a job at a church in Penobscot County. As a child, Hurst said, he listened to Gospel music, but it wasn’t until he went to New Jersey as a teenager that he really connected with the music and the African-American worship style.
“I went down there when I was 17 for a year,” he said. “It was a great turning point for me and took me down the road I’m on now.”
Hurst spent the next five years at Texas Bible College in Houston and helped found a church in that city. His fine singing voice led to a music ministry, which allowed him to meet and tour with Tyler Perry in his stage show, “Madea Goes to Jail.” Perry produced and starred in the cable television show “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.” He also was involved in the production of the award-winning film “Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire.”
“Between the music ministry and the tour with Tyler, I was on the road for 15 years,” Hurst said. “My family was in Bangor, so I did it all from here, but it got to be too much. I was missing so much family-wise.”
Hurst works full time at a Bangor group home for adults with disabilities in addition to ministering to his flock. He said Perry called him this fall to ask if he’d go back on the road in the actor’s new show.
“When I was able to tell him no and feel good about it,” the minister said, “I knew I’d made the right decision about getting off the road and starting the church.”
Hurst described himself and his congregation as “nondenominational” and rejected definitions used to categorize Christian churches.
“We’re not trying to compare ourselves or connect with any other denomination,” he said. “We’re trying to break the stereotypes denominationalism can bring.”
Since its first service in March, Destiny has grown through word of mouth.
African-American students at the University of Maine, Job Corps, Husson University and NESCOM often attend, Hurst said. Average Sunday attendance of between 75 and 80 has caused the minister to consider adding a second service.
The Praise Team’s performance in November at a gospel music concert to benefit St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bangor introduced Destiny’s music style to a broader audience.
After that concert, Buck Buchanan of Bangor attended a Sunday worship service at Destiny. A native of Florida, Buchanan said the military brought him to Maine and he decided to stay.
Buchanan decided to visit the church because “I was really impressed with their style of singing,” he said.
Raenicha Johnson, 30, of Bangor, is the music director at the church. She began singing in a church choir at the age of 3.
Johnson said she and her family moved to Maine a year ago from Nashville. Coming to northern New England, where there are few African-Americans, was a culture shock, she said.
Being part of a congregation where she felt comfortable and able to contribute musically was important to her. She visited other churches but simply did not connect with their worship styles the way she did at Destiny.
“This reminds me of home,” she said.
Services are held at 11 a.m. Sundays, and Bible study is held at 6 p.m. Thursdays at Destiny Worship Center in Next Generation Theatre, 39 Center St., Brewer. For information, call 991-8452.