The world knew Prince as a pop star with a flamboyant, larger-than-life stage presence, overtly sexual songs and videos and gifted musical genius. But at the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, St. Louis Park congregation, Prince was just an understated man in a simple black suit.
“He was exceptionally shy,” recalled congregation secretary Bruce McFarland.
Here they called him Brother Nelson and remember him slipping in after the opening song in the Sunday morning service, dutifully holding up his hand, clutching his Bible marked with post-it notes, patiently waiting his turn to discuss the Scripture. On the surface, few in this 95-member conservatively dressed, middle class suburban congregation look like they’ve ever danced to ‘Let’s Go Crazy.”
Members of the religion, often derided in the mainstream, told CNN they feel misunderstood and are defensive about that lack of understanding. The elders invited some members of the media into its Sunday morning service, an attempt at demonstrating their accessibility, from the ordinary person to one of the biggest superstars on the planet.
“He didn’t want to dishonor the faith. He wanted to be just one of us,” said James Lundstrom, a fellow parishioner and religious friend of Prince’s since 2002. Lundstrom said since 2006, Prince called St. Louis Park his congregation, engaging regularly in the door-to-door ministry practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On one occasion, remembered Lundstrom, Prince knocked on a door in a middle class suburb of Minneapolis. A woman answered and stared at the instantly recognizable singer, easily the Twin Cities’ biggest celebrity, Lundstrom recalled. “In the middle of Prince’s very nice Bible presentation, the woman says, ‘Excuse me, but has anyone told you that you look a lot like Prince?’ He looks at her and says, ‘It’s been said.’ Then goes back to his presentation. When the woman asked Prince for his name, Prince said, ‘Rogers Nelson,'” his middle and last name.
The focus for the pop star wasn’t his worldwide fame, but Jehovah, say the people who worshiped with him for the last decade. That is a difficult image to reconcile for fans of the performer who wrote the raunchy lyrics to ‘Darling Nikki’.
Parishioners at St. Louis Park congregation, gathering for the first service since Prince’s death, have had years to push aside his fame. On Sunday, they were openly emotional. In keeping with Prince’s wishes to be just like any other parishioner, the service touched only briefly on his death at age 57.
“Our brother Prince fell asleep in death,” said the elder at the pulpit.
Becoming a Jehovah’s Witness
Prince Rogers Nelson, born in Minneapolis, was raised Seventh Day Adventist. His early lyrics, while overtly sexual in nature, had tinges of spirituality. On an appearance on the The Tavis Smiley Show in 2009, Prince claimed spirituality touched him as a young child.
“I was born epileptic. I used to have seizures when I was young,” he told Smiley. That epilepsy was cured, Prince said. How? Because as a child, he told his mother, “an angel told me so.” Prince also told Smiley he doesn’t recall that conversation with his mother.
“I like to believe my inspiration comes from God,” Prince told CNN’s Larry King in December 1999. “I’ve always known God is my creator. Without him, nothing works.”
His relationship with fellow musician Larry Graham started Prince down the path to joining the Jehovah’s Witness faith. In 2001, Graham, the bassist for Sly and the Family Stone, began a two year religious discussion with Prince.
“I started studying the Bible once I changed my name back and started studying with my good friend Larry Graham,” said Prince in a 2004 interview with CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo. “He helped me to just look at the Bible in a very practical way, to cut through all the dogma. I just wanted a clean, simple approach to it.”
Prince got baptized in Chanhassen, MN on March 23, 2003 congregation secretary Bruce McFarland said, citing church records. In 2006, Larry Graham joined St. Louis Park and Prince followed his mentor to their new congregation.
Medicine and faith
Graham slipped into the Sunday service as the congregation studied ‘The Watchtower,’ the Jehovah’s Witness magazine and guide. Graham hugged a fellow parishioner, and then along with others in the congregation, read along to the Watchtower.
The elder leading the Bible study section of the service asked a question about loyalty to the congregation. Graham raised his hand. “Whatever challenge we may face now or in the future, and there will be challenges,” he said. “We want to be wise. We want to make Jehovah’s part rejoice and remain loyal to him.”
In this place of worship, loyalty to their faith, and in many respects to their pop star brother, is palpable.
Lundstrom said he first met Prince as the singer’s mother was dying. Lundstrom is a Jehovah’s Witness hospital liaison committee representative in Minneapolis. Unique to this faith the position is needed in a religion that carries a very specific requirement—allogeneic blood transfusions, often required during major surgeries, are prohibited. As a hospital liaison committee representative, Lundstrom connects members of his faith with doctors who will honor that blood transfusion requirement.
Lundstrom said Prince’s mother was studying the Jehovah’s Witness faith and requested hospital liaison services. Lundstrom says he was with Prince at his mother’s bedside as she passed away. That moment solidified a friendship that would last until the singer’s death.
Lundstrom, who said he last saw Prince a month ago at a church service on March 23, bristled at a question about Prince’s medical condition. “He was at the Kingdom Hall. He looked fine, talked fine,” said Lundstrom.
Other parishioners offered more blunt pronouncements about Prince and an alleged aversion to surgery on his hips because of Jehovah’s Witness beliefs about blood transfusions.
“Nobody said he (Prince) couldn’t get surgery. Absolutely not,” said David Osburn. Osburn, who said his own sister did die in 1979 because she refused blood transfusions, argues today’s surgeries are often compatible with Jehovah’s Witness beliefs.
“We’re not anti-medicine. In fact, we go out of our way to try and find the best medical care we can,” said Osburn.
St. Louis Park parishioners said they don’t know why Prince died so suddenly. Like the rest of the Twin Cities and the world mourning the pop star’s life, these people of faith also mourned. Not just for the singer, but for a secretive brother few saw or knew as they did.
By Kyung Lah and Jack Hannah