Hip hop artist and actor Ja Rule said in a recent interview with HuffPost Live that Hillsong Church NYC's "come as you are" atmosphere helped him welcome God into his life.
The rapper, whose real name is Jeffrey Atkins, spoke with Marc Lamont Hill about his experience touring churches to promote his new movie, "I'm In Love With A Church Girl." He was regularly asked during the tour if he was saved or if starring in the film impacted him spiritually, he shared, and he would respond by saying he loved God and believed in Him, but was taking his faith slowly.
"But what I was really saying is: 'I don't feel like I'm a part of this yet. I don't feel welcome,'" he said.
He didn't feel welcome, that is, until he stepped foot into Hillsong Church NYC. Ja Rule was impressed by the megachurch's meeting location – the Irving Plaza concert venue – as well as the "eclectic" group of people that gathers there for worship.
He was also moved by the sermon delivered by Carl Lentz, the tattooed senior pastor of Hillsong NYC.
"I felt comfortable," said Ja Rule. "I felt like he was really speaking to me. And that moved me to say, 'You know what? Now I get it. I can accept God into my life.'"
Ja Rule, who says his strict Jehovah's Witness upbringing put a "black eye" on religion for him, also says he realized Lentz wasn't asking him to immediately put out a gospel music album. The rapper is taking "baby steps" in his faith, he said, and he is doing so at his own pace.
"I'm not saying I'm perfect, not saying I'm going to change tomorrow, but I'm making that step and they're accepting me as I am," he said.
The rapper isn't the only celebrity who has been drawn to Hillsong NYC, which opened in October 2010 and is the first U.S. congregation started by Australia's Hillsong Church. Pop sensation Justin Bieber, actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens and New York Knicks center Tyson Chandler are among those who have been spotted at the church.
Ja Rule was released from prison in May after serving nearly two years behind bars for attempted criminal possession of a weapon and tax evasion, TMZ reported at the time. The gun possession sentence was the result of an incident in which police discovered a loaded semi-automatic handgun in the rapper's car back in 2007. He served the two sentences concurrently.
In his new film the rapper plays a former drug trafficker who becomes attracted to a "church girl." His character's questionable past, however, quickly becomes an obstacle that tests the pair's relationship and their faith.