Local pastor had unlikely start

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 20, 2013

By Kimberly Hopson

LAPLACE – Chris “Checkerz” Williams, 40, the pastor of Celebration Church’s LaPlace campus, is a religious leader with an interesting history.
Williams was named pastor in 2011 and will be celebrating his two-year anniversary with the church in May. Williams said that when Dennis Watson, the founding pastor of the church, approached him to become a pastor, he initially said no because he already had plans to start his own church in New Orleans.
“I was going to start a church from scratch in mid-city, but they were pretty persistent. They really felt like the Lord led us to their church for the purpose of us pastoring this campus.”  
Before settling down, Williams had spent 17 years traveling the country doing inner city outreach as a Christian rapper — it’s where he derives his unusual nickname, Checkerz.
Williams said he grew up in Las Vegas and loved hip-hop music from an early age. His early secular influences were Run DMC and LL Cool J. At some point, he discovered that he had a gift for writing lyrics and rapping. He took his skills on to high school, where he began rapping at school gatherings and parties. At age 19, he moved to North Carolina, where he became a wild child and was constantly in an out of trouble. It was at this point that he was exposed to the Gospel — he was working in construction when a fellow employee exposed him to the teachings of Christ and told him that he was not living his life correctly. Williams decided to change himself for the better but didn’t want to leave rapping behind.
“Immediately, I was heartbroken because I thought I was going to have to give up everything I knew. Rap was like my thing. He told me I didn’t have to quit rapping. He just said that you have to change the message in the music,” recalled Williams. “Mind you, in 1992, no churches were going to allow anyone to rap inside the church. But my heart wasn’t targeted toward the church anyway.”
As he grew as an artist, his influences changed. He was exposed to another Christian rapper, T-Bone, who he said was the first to go mainstream in the genre. T-Bone played a major role in the movie “The Fighting Temptations” as a prisoner.
Williams had the opportunity to meet T-Bone in Memphis, Tenn., during a show, and there he picked up the nickname Checkerz.
“He gave me that nickname because I used to have braids down to here,” he said, gesturing at his shoulders. “When my hair was plaited, as you know, they did the little square parts to make the plaits, so the top of my head looked like a checkerboard. We were sitting a hotel in Memphis, and he’s like ‘Man, you gotta have stage name,’ because i didn’t have one. We’re all tossing around names, and he just blurted out Checkerz. I asked him what that was all about and he said, ‘Man every time I look at the top of your head it reminds me of a checker board.’ So Checkerz it was.”
Williams decided that his plaited hair would become his trademark as he conveyed his message of God’s love.
Williams took his message to the streets and began doing his own personal outreach on street corners, basketball courts and in high schools. He said, with a laugh, that his first two songs were very basic since he didn’t know much about the Bible at the time. The songs were called “Make the Choice” and “In Yo Face.”
Though Williams no longer has copies of his early music, he still has copies of his last album, “Keep it Locked,” in his church office. Williams no longer raps though.
Williams said his church is probably one of the most diverse congregations in St. John the Baptist Parish. His congregations comes from many different backgrounds racially, economically, demoninationally.
Williams said there are people in his congregation currently who come from cults, were atheist at some point and have no church background at all. He said there are also people who come from the Catholic, Methodist and Baptist denominations. One thing he likes most about Celebration Church is the focus is on the word of God rather than the church leadership.
“We try to draw attention away from it. That’s why my name is not on the church sign. Our goal is to make Jesus famous, not the pastor,” he said.
Celebration Church is a little unorthodox in its methods of working with the congregation, but Williams said the whole point of the institution is to make people feel welcome and loved. Williams also said the reason the church uses multiple campuses is to better reach people they can minister to, without focusing on becoming a mega church.
“(We’re about) using whatever resources we can to reach people wherever they are. in that, we are a little unorthodox. We have coffee in the morning before church, and people are actually allowed to bring it in the sanctuary during worship service,” he said.
‘We’re not asking people to get all fixed up and cleaned up before they come to our church. We’re a church for all people,” he said.