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Ja Rule sees change with 'I'm in Love With a Church Girl'

Standing in front of his congregation at One Church International, pastor Touré Roberts made an impassioned plea: Go see a Ja Rule movie this weekend.

"I'm excited about this film," the preacher said. "It's almost like God is taking it viral. It comes out this Friday, and we gotta go."

In the middle of a Wednesday evening service at a theater-turned-church on La Brea Avenue, Roberts was hyping up "I'm in Love With a Church Girl," a faith-based film that just debuted in about 500 theaters. The movie is based on the story of screenwriter Galley Molina, a former drug trafficker who found God after he began seeing a woman involved in the church.

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For the last month, he and rapper Ja Rule — who plays a fictionalized version of Molina in the film — have been on a 20-city promotional tour, enlisting youth groups and pastors to spread the word about the Christian-friendly tale. (Roberts even asked his church to tweet about the movie twice per day this weekend.)

Spending so much time in church has had a spiritual effect on Rule, the 37-year-old Queens native born Jeff Atkins. In May, he was released early from prison after a two-year stint, serving time concurrently after pleading guilty to weapon possession and tax evasion charges. "Church Girl" was filmed in 2010, before Rule went behind bars — and even then, he had doubts about how the religious community would receive him.

"I just didn't think that the church people would welcome me with open arms," Rule said before the service last week, a toothpick lazily hanging from his mouth. "I was kind of nervous they would be like, 'Why would you pick him to be in a faith-based film? He's not a Christian. He doesn't even go to church.'"

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The film's backers were anxious too. Rule had landed supporting roles in movies like "The Fast and the Furious" and "Scary Movie 3," but he'd never carried a movie on his own. Director Steve Race said he was warned against signing onto the project from friends who asked, "What are you, crazy? He's a gangster rapper. They have such bad reputations on set."

"And I think he was late every day," said Race. "But I didn't mind. I give so much freedom to my talent because they don't have a physical thing they do — they're acting. If you start getting on them for being late, their emotions change."

Leap of faith

It was the filmmaker who eventually sold Molina on Rule. The musician wasn't the writer's first choice for the lead part, but Molina quickly found there were few actors interested in starring in a faith-based movie.

"We went out to Hollywood, man — not just rap stars and musicians," said Molina, who along with private investors helped pay the $12 million it cost to produce and market the picture. "We went with legitimate offers and we got shunned. But my goal here is to reach a wide audience. And you can't put a Yankee cap on Kirk Cameron and be like, 'Yo, play this part.'"

He was referring to Cameron because in 2008 the "Growing Pains" star appeared in "Fireproof," a low-budget faith-based film that grossed a surprisingly strong $33 million. Since then, a number of movies with religious themes — including the inspirational dramas "Soul Surfer" and "Courageous" — have also performed well at the box office, indicating increasing demand for the genre.

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With no nudity or cursing, the PG-rated "Church Girl" is set to play to that same core audience. The woman Rule's protagonist falls in love with, played by Adrienne Bailon, frequents Bible study and works at a store that sells faith-related merchandise. The couple have numerous discussions about God and attend worship together.

Despite its numerous religious references, Rule believes the movie has the potential to reach a secular audience.

"I think right now may be a turning point for faith-based films," Rule said. "Unless you're [Mel Gibson's blockbuster] 'Passion of the Christ,' they really don't want faith-based films coming out of their studios right now.... But we're not just gonna touch a faith-based audience, we'll touch a mainstream audience — maybe a light one, but a mainstream audience nonetheless. And for the faith-based community, we bring a sense of cool."

A public profession

Decked out in a varsity jacket and a baseball cap that declared him a "Beast," Rule was received warmly by the crowd at One Church International this week. The audience was audibly enthusiastic when he began talking about how the movie opened his eyes to religion, that his experience on the production sustained him through prison. It was there that Rule decided to read the Bible cover to cover.

"They only give you two books — the jail rule book and the Bible. Nobody really wants to read the jail manual, so you go with option B, you know?" he said with a chuckle.

At first, he said, he felt out of place on the press tour — like he was walking on eggshells, or should have been dressed in a suit and tie. That last month changed when Molina took him to Hillsong Church in New York, a congregation led by Carl Lentz, a tattooed 34-year-old who is close with Justin Bieber and Jay-Z.

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"I felt comfortable there," Rule recalled. "The people looked just like me, they were dressed like me — nobody was in there in suits and ties all stuffy hitting you with the 'God is good now, brother' — that fake Christian stuff."

When Lentz did the altar call, Rule came forward to make a spiritual commitment to Jesus. He now considers himself saved. With his newfound faith, Rule is hoping Christians will reserve judgment about his criminal past — but he's also eager for Hollywood to see him in a new light too. He said he just signed a deal for his wife and their three kids to star in a reality show with him, though he'd like to continue more serious acting pursuits as well.

"I hope people look at this movie and say 'Wow, Ja handled a lot of dialogue in that film,'" he said. "'If he can do that, we can definitely give him a badge and a gun and have him say a few lines here and there.'"

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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