scene and heard

Take Me to the River

With the help of a computer print-out sign announcing, “The River is this way,” Jason D. Johnson, a freshman at the Berklee College of Muisc,  finally found the basement off of the eerily quiet parking lot of Benjamin Banneker Charter School.

He sat in the back row of the makeshift church, alongside a hodgepodge of long-haired musicians and mousy girls in khakis.

On the church’s stage, a bandanna-crowned Asian-American bounced to the beat of his electric guitar, crooning, “River flow. Fire Burn. Holy Spirit breathe on me.”  Behind him, a bored-looking man picked at an keyboard, while another beat on a drum. The guitarist started rapping to the beat of the drum. “More than just go to class, more than just study for school grades, more than just get a job—there’s gotta be more, God.”

The music is a substitute for the traditional drone of an organ, explains Lyzz K. Middaugh-Mote, 20, Pizzeria Regina worker and soon-to-be college student, who came to Boston from Minnesota last year and “church-hopped” for a while.

Then she found The River—the youth church group advertised in The Crimson that purports to give converts the same Matrix-style life change as the legendary red pill Keanu Reeves swallows in the movie.

“I call it ‘Following Jesus 101,’” says Middaugh-Mote, who just became the co-leader of the organization’s “Alpha Course” discussion group. “This is what’s practical, not just lofty ideas.”

So what about the advertised red pill?

“For  most of us, that’s what it felt like when we experienced Jesus,” says Middaugh-Mote. The River caters to the Christian who doesn’t go to church as well as to agnostics—the “unchurched,” as she puts it. It has a following of about 30 college-age students in Cambridge, some of whom meet at the building that doubles as a school by day in a residential area between Porter and Davis Squares.

The River caters to MIT, Harvard, Tufts and Northeastern, among other area schools. It was a modern sermon in an old setting: a PowerPoint presentation was controlled by youth leaders at laptops, and fading murals of constellations and pirates colored the concrete walls. In the back row, the off-duty guitarist scooted his chair closer to a girl and subtly slid his arm around her.