Mase left the rap game three years ago, but we still miss him. With rumors strong about a possible return to hip-hop, we go deep cover to his church in Atlanta to find out the truth.

Written By: Marginee Ellis
Illustration: Chang Park

Awash in a fervent sea of “Hallelujahs” and “Thank Ya’s,” Pastor Mason Betha ceremonially approaches the clear, Plexiglas altar of Saving A Nation Endangered Ministries. The praises reverberate off the walls of the East Rivers Elementary School auditorium, a tree-hidden edifice quietly situated off a busy thoroughfare in Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead neighborhood. But as Pastor Betha sets his Bible down on the podium, a respectful hush takes over the room. He quickly admonishes: “Don’t stop for me. Keep praising Him!” The obedient congregation resumes their exaltations even louder and more passionate than before.

Betha calmly surveys the well-dressed crowd that has come to hear him sermonize on salvation and righteousness. The rapperturned- reverend’s face, rounder than in years past, is stern. His demeanor is stiff. His blue-black, pinstripe three-piece suit looks heavy and hot against the Georgia heat that waits outside.

The praises gradually dissipate as Pastor Betha bows his head and begins to pray. He’ll be reading fromActs 12:5-15 this morning. His trademark deadpan drawl rolls out toward the rear of the room, where two young ushers stand motionless, guarding the double- door exit.

“I’m about to shake up religious folk today,” he says. “So if you’re religious, watch out.”

The predominantly female congregation yields murmurs of assent. Pastor Betha pauses. Eighty pairs of mascararimmed eyes gaze back attentively. “See, I don’t have a religion. I have a relationship. I live by faith, not by laws.”

Near the left side of the room, a brown-skinned, middle-aged woman in a canary yellow suit suddenly jumps out of her seat. She stands, extending a trembling arm out toward the altar and, in a possessed fury, screeches a series of nonsensical syllables: “Un tsk tsk ch ch tuh tuh tuh!” The congregation gasps. The woman storms out. It’s a surreal, almost cinematic moment. Yet Pastor Betha’s expression never changes. “God bless you,” he yells as she hits the door. Without missing a beat, he half-laughs, “I told y’all I was gonna shake some church folk up.”

Visiting S.A.N.E. Ministries may be unlike any other church experience you’ve ever had. There’s no Holy Ghost choir. No soulstirring band. No television or audio/video cassette ministry. No after-church mingling. No entertainment. Leave your prior notions at the door. Pastor Betha would prefer that his church get down to the business of the Bible.

“It’s not for me to become a clone of any preacher out there,” he writes in his autobiography, Revelations: There’s Life After The Lime. “If I’m going to do something different, I’ve got to go about it in a different way.”

Pastor Betha appreciates the church’s modest surroundings, he says, because it separates the faithful from the frivolous. “I couldn’t see me having a place that a crackhead or dope dealer wouldn’t come into,” he writes. “My church has to make a prostitute feel welcome. God wants to reach those people, too, and they can’t be reached in the usual way. I’m going to do it the way God instructed me to—in an unusual way.”

It’s hard to believe that these words come from the same man who used to spell his name with a dollar sign, the playboy who once claimed to have “hit everything from Cancun to Grant’s Tomb.” But these days, Pastor Betha puts his passion into saving souls for Christ. Sometimes he gets so worked up during a sermon, he can’t finish his sentences. The longer he preaches, the more he loosens up though, and the more effective he becomes. One Sunday, he’ll compare false devotion to a C-Lo game; the next, he’ll liken commitment to working out with an Ab Roller. He’s quick to share personal anecdotes, ranging from the music industry to married life. And he’s not afraid to show that the hood in him hasn’t totally disappeared. “Even if a pimp is teaching tithes and offering,” he’ll say. “It’s still the truth.”

The unusual tale of Mason Derelle Betha begins on August 27, 1975, when he and his twin sister, Stason, were born—the youngest of six siblings in Jacksonville, Florida. Fleeing her abusive husband, Mason’s mother moved her children to Harlem, New York when Mason was just three years old. He spent his early teen years gambling, cutting class, chasing after girls and running the streets of 139th and Lenox.

Basketball was his first love. He was a star player for Manhattan Center High School—along with his close friend Cameron Giles (now known as rapper Cam’ron.) As teens, the two dabbled in rap as a hobby, briefly forming a group called Children Of The Corn (“corn” stood for “corner”). Damon Dash, a fellow Manhattan Center student, was their manager for a while before leaving to pursue another rap associate, Lamont “Big L” Coleman. (Dash, of course, would go on to start Roc-A-Fella records with Brooklyn’s Jay-Z. Big L was murdered on February 15, 1999.)

After graduating high school in 1994, Mason went to the State University of New York at Purchase in Westchester, New York on a basketball scholarship. He returned to Harlem after only a couple of semesters, intent on pursuing a career in rap. His sister Stason hooked him up with Cudda Love, a road manager for burgeoning rap legend Biggie Smalls. In 1996 Cudda took Mason down to Atlanta, where the likes of Jermaine Dupri and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs were gathering for a rap convention. Shortly after meeting and rapping for Combs at the Hard Rock Café, Ma$e signed a $250,000 deal with Bad Boy Entertainment and joined labelmate Notorious B.I.G. in building a pop culture dynasty.

They were well on their way. Biggie’s Ready To Die had been released two years earlier and was already a certified classic. Mason struck gold right away, guesting on 112’s “Only You (Remix)” and Puffy’s own “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” which held fast to the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s R&B singles chart for 25 weeks.

Anointed crown prince of Bad Boy, M-A-$-E began living a hedonistic high life of champagne and marijuana, wild after-parties and willing women. Along with the heady success, though, came drama from all directions. He was nearly killed in a robbery not far from the Harlem block where he grew up, and a nasty beef with Jay-Z surfaced on mixtapes and records. In March 1997, Biggie was killed.