Johnny Coit felt the holy spirit in May at Bethel AME Church. It had to do with being asked to illustrate a program cover for the church's annual women's day celebration. The enthusiastic response to his rendering of "three women shouting and praising the Lord," brought him into the fold, he says.
Since then, Johnny, a 14-year-old Middle River middle-school student, has dedicated himself to spreading God's word to others his age. A gifted artist who dreams of becoming a cartoonist, he has designed a T-shirt that proclaims: "I'm Hype for Jesus" and features cool-as-can-be African-American teen-agers.
To be "hype" is to be "hooked or very excited about something, so you're saying you're hooked on Jesus," Johnny says. "I wanted to attract the hip-hop crowd, because I wanted to show them you could be cool and hip-hop and still love the Lord."
The T-shirt is catching on among his peers, including Carlos Foster, 12, who wears the T-shirt "everywhere I go," including the basketball court. "I really like the shirt because . . . it doesn't matter what you wear to church, it matters what you get out of the Lord. Johnny knows that," Carlos says.
Johnny's mother and stepfather Nathaniel Augustusel invested their small savings in his fledgling T-shirt business, called Hype Generation Ministries. "We took everything we had and set him up," says Vernadette Augustusel, his mom. "We're stepping out on faith."
His parents' assistance also is an act of faith that Johnny is sticking to the rightful path. "He used to be in trouble," Mrs. Augustusel says. "Through prayer, my husband and I keep encouraging him and supporting him. No matter what he had done, we didn't give up."
Johnny's rehabilitation included several family consultations with the Rev. Frank Reid III, the popular pastor of the 8,500-member Bethel AME Church on Druid Hill Avenue.
The T-shirts are proof that Johnny's life has "taken a tremendous change for the better," Mr. Reid says. Not only that, they "show our community you don't have to sell drugs and do other criminal things to be successful," he says. "You can use your God-given talents and come up with your own ideas and form your own business."
To wear one her son's creations is a way of saying "the streets didn't get this one," Mrs. Augustusel says. Resisting the pull of the streets is not easy, even among youth who "come from good Christian families," she says. "Teen-agers go off in their own little world, and it's hard to get them back."
So far, Johnny has sold more than 100 silk-screened T-shirts to kids, mothers and fathers who belong to the church. Many have been appropriated by church youth groups, Mrs. Augustusel says. A number of local religious boutiques also are selling the T-shirts for $12 each.
Young people browsing in the Upward Way Shop in Oldtown Mall think the T-shirts are cool, says store manager Anita Burston. The T-shirts, designed to go with trendy baggy pants and tennis shoes, will "attract the attention of kids that are not in Christ," she says. "I think that's the point he was probably trying to get across. You can be a kid, you can be sort of cool and down to earth and be a Christian."
The T-shirt is also showcased in the window of the 4 Real Shop in Reisterstown Road Plaza. "A lot of people said they're going to come back payday to get some," says Debbie Smith, who co-owns the Christian gift shop with her husband Stanley.
Johnny's future plans include expanding his line to include Christian comic books that focus on real-life situations, tote bags, posters and coffee mugs. Once the business gets off the ground, he would also like his work to represent a spectrum of ethnic groups and races.
"I just want it to really work out for him," says Mrs. Augustusel of her son's fledgling business. "He's so talented."