When music pioneer Héctor “el Father” Delgado came to town, he didn’t revisit his reggaeton super hits at a nightclub. Instead he rapped in tongues—at a church.
Delgado, one of the founders of reggaeton who soared to fame before crashing and turning to religion, was a guest preacher Sunday at Second Star of Jacob Christian Church at Chapel and Lloyd streets, one of Fair Haven’s largest Hispanic Pentecostal congregations. The five-hour Sunday service was full of energy, with a cumbia group playing danceable music and about 200 congregants raising their hands in praise of God.
The climatic point came towards the end of the service when dozens of worshipers approached Delgado to receive a special blessing. The former music star laid hands on them, whispering healing words into their ears and urging them to accept Christ as their savior.
The intensity reached a peak when the preacher began to speak in tongues, provoking convulsions in the bodies of the faithful and gasps of awe from the audience.
“And there are things that nobody knows!” Delgado shouted in Spanish into a microphone moments after speaking in tongues, as the young woman below his hand began to violently shake. “Things that you suffer alone! But you know what? Take off the rock! Take off the rock!” (Click on the play arrow at the top of the story to view a clip of that moment).
The shouts of the mostly Puerto Rican congregation filled the long and narrow building, bouncing off the white walls and the plasma screens where the scene was multiplied by high-definition cameras.
Many shed tears; church staff passed around boxes of tissues. The whole service was broadcast nationwide on a Christian radio station.
Delgado’s sermon focused on the need to “pay God back” for his blessings. Delgado spoke in Spanish as another minister translated into English in real time. His chief metaphor was taken from the parable of Lazarus. Delgado noted that although Jesus could have easily moved the rock that blocked the entry to Lazarus’ tomb, he instead asked the dead man’s family to do it themselves.
The reggaeton star-turned-pulpit preacher interpreted that moment to mean that God does not do anything for free.
“Imagine if they hadn’t moved the rock!” said Delgado. “God will restore your marriage, heal your son, save you from depression. But you’ve got to stop sinning—you have to move the rock so that the miracle can happen. With Him, everything is dando y dando—giving and giving.”
Together with the church’s other ministers, Second Star Pastor Eliseo Aponte gave Delgado an “apostolic shield” to protect him from the temptations that he said the devil will surely send to derail the singer’s path again—and invited him to take his preaching to the next level.
“You are destined for great things,” the pastor said to the former star. “You will preach the world over. And there is more! God has put in my heart that your whole family must preach. They must become an altar family.”
Delgado answered with tears.
A Long Way To The Top—& A Quick Fall To The Bottom
Before his conversion to Evangelical Christianity, Delgado was one of the founders and most important exponents of the genre that became known as reggaeton. The music originated in Panama and Puerto Rico in the early 1990s when local artists began combining Jamaican reggae and traditional Latin American music with hip-hop sensibilities.
The result was an art form characterized by infectious beats, heavy bass-lines, lighting-fast rapping in Spanish, and explicit lyrics about sex and violence. (Click on the play arrow to watch the music video for “Sácala,” one of Delgado’s greatest hits).
Born in 1979 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Delgado skyrocketed to fame and helped take reggaeton to the international spotlight. Together with former collaborator Tito “El Bambino,” Delgado was among the first reggaeton artists to organize large-scale concerts on the island, bringing what had been an underground movement into the mainstream. Soon after came hits on the American pop charts, Grammy and Billboard awards, lucrative endorsements by clothing companies, tours of Latin American cities, legions of adoring fans—and depression, a failing marriage, and the persistent desire to die.
“I was like Naaman,” Delgado said Sunday, referencing an episode from the biblical Book of Kings. “I was rich, powerful, held in high esteem. But I was a leper.”
He hit rock bottom in 2008, ten years after he released his first album. Over the decade, 33 of his friends had been murdered. His pupil Don Omar had betrayed him, starting a war of words in which each singer wrote insulting songs about the other.
Money became so meaningless that Delgado took to giving away “cake” during concerts—throwing handfuls of dollars into the crowd.
“I remember one night after a concert,” said Delgado during the sermon, tears in his eyes. “I had all my security with me. Nobody could touch me. But there was a man standing by my tour bus, and I got angry. I was about to yell to my bodyguards. Then I saw the man was homeless and drunk. I reached to my pocket to give him money, but he stopped me. And then he told me, ‘Hector el Father, don’t flee from God no more.’”
One day he found himself holding a gun, wanting to die. He then felt the calling of God. He sent out a press release that stated that Hector “el Father” had died—and that Hector Delgado had been born again.
“I was not going to infect young people with my music anymore,” Delgado said Sunday.
Delgado’s conversion story proves a perfect parable of Pentecostal theology, which is based on the power of belief to transform people’s lives. Interviewed after the sermon, Pastor Aponte explained that his denomination—the Assemblies of God—adopted Martin Luther’s insight that faith, not good works, brings salvation.
“Salvation is reached with faith, accepting Christ as one’s savior,” the pastor said in Spanish Sunday. “The Bible teaches us that faith alone saves us. That’s not to say that doing the Lord’s work is not important, but rather that good actions follow from faith, and not the other way around. Faith brings people to action, but action cannot bring people to faith. “
Pentecostals also believe in a personal connection with God, who can call on people at any moment and ask them to repent from their sins. These two essential beliefs—the power of faith alone and people’s unmediated connection with God—are embodied in the moment of conversion, when a person whose life had not been exemplary hears the voice of God calling him or her to believe.
“In your heart of hearts, God lets you know that the time has come to believe,” the pastor explained.
That is what happened to Delgado. Following the steps of Paul and Augustine, the reggaeton singer reenacted one of the central motifs of Pentecostal theology—the story of the prodigal son who is “born again” after having been tempted by the devil.
Unlike in other Christian denominations, Pastor Aponte and his church—founded in 1971 as the “daughter church” of an earlier congregation—believe that the mediation of a priest between God and the faithful is unnecessary. The pastor is not the middleman between the congregation and the divinity, but rather a spiritual guide. That’s why Delgado—who has never been formally ordained—can lay hands on the congregants.
The denomination’s emphasis on spontaneity and immediacy also explains the phenomena of “glossolalia”—also known as “speaking in tongues.” Pentecostals believe that God sometimes takes control of the faithful, who are able to channel the Divinity directly.
Like other tenets of Pentecostal theology, glossolalia has a Biblical antecedent. The Acts of the Apostles relates that the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples after the crucifixion, giving them the ability to speak the original language spoken by all people before the fall of the Tower of Babel— a language with profound meaning that sounded like gibberish only to non-believers.
If some of the apostles had doubted, none did after the miracle.
The marvel happened during the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Shavuot)—which is called Pentecost in Greek. Hence the denomination’s name. Like the apostles, Delgado, Aponte, and all other Pentecostals believe they have been touched by God himself—called to believe and charged with spreading the faith.
Sunday’s service at Second Star of Jacob highlighted this “apostolic” imperative to go out into the world not only by inviting Delgado to bear witness, but also by recognizing two people who “have done much for the New Haven and Pentecostal communities.” The congregation awarded twin “Radiant Star of Jacob” awards to Assistant Police Chief Luiz Casanova and to Norma Rodriguez, publisher of La Voz Hispana.
Rodriguez took the opportunity to revisit the long history of Pentecostalism in New Haven. She said that she had been a member of First Star of Jacob—the congregation founded in the 1950s that spawned Second Star and several other churches—ever since she came to Connecticut from Puerto Rico at age 5.
“I was Pentecostal before it was fashionable!” she said. “Back then, only poor, illiterate people were Pentecostal in New Haven.”
“But look at us know,” she said, looking at Delgado, a multi-millionaire, who was sitting on the front row. “We’ve come so far.”
Dozens of newcomers converted Sunday, joining one of New Haven’s fastest-growing congregations.