Claiming Sacred Space at the Bar

Danny TrappExperimenting Our Ways into New Ways

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Holding a worship service in a bar or restaurant is not a new concept. Google “church at a bar” and you’ll find examples across the country—in Missouri, Virginia, Georgia, and Texas to name a few. Something is happening in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the Thirsty Beaver Saloon, however, that I do believe is new and different. What we are doing on the first Sunday afternoon of every month at The Thirsty Beaver Goodtime Fellowship Hour is claiming sacred space.

The Thirsty Beaver is a classic throwback, a country honky-tonk with a free jukebox, cheap beer and liquor, and an eclectic clientele from all walks of life. On any given day blue collar laborers pull up a stool next to lawyers, school teachers, businessmen and women, and yes, even ministers to enjoy a PBR or a “Jack and coke” and relax in a welcoming environment. That matters of faith are even on the radar screen in such a watering hole is less surprising than one might think. First of all the bar’s owners, brothers Brian and Mark Wilson, grew up in North Carolina as sons of a United Methodist minister. Following their father around the state as he moved among various church assignments surely made an impact on them, even as they wrestled with the “PK” label.

The music, too, is important. Mark and Brian are classic country music fans and musicians who front their own honky-tonk band, The Loose Lugnuts. You will not find Kenny Chesney, Luke Bryan, or Florida Georgia Line on this jukebox. Instead you’ll get a steady dose of country legends easily identifiable by just their first name: Johnny, Waylon, Merle, Willie, Hank, Tammy, Tonya, and many others. Much like early rhythm and blues, this genre of American music has its roots firmly planted in the church, and there is always a chance you might hear “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams or “What Would You Do (if Jesus Came To Your House)” by Porter Wagoner mixed in with Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” or Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” As one twangy classic after another drifts from the speaker system, one can sit at the bar and watch a continuous muted loop of Hee Haw reruns on the vintage 1980’s TV set mounted in one corner of the wall.

The “goodtime fellowship hour” came about after several years of unrelated conversations among different bar regulars converged into a concrete idea in October 2014. Key to moving from idea to actuality was the notion that there is already a community in place. This was not about “going to where the sinners are” or “saving the lost.” Nor is it an outreach ministry of a particular church. The two leaders who sketched out the first “order of worship” over a beer and pretzels on that October afternoon are Jim Garrett, a local businessman, musician, and deacon at Providence Baptist Church and me, a pastor ordained in the Presbyterian Church, USA, who serves in validated ministry for a non-profit interfaith organization. We took the idea to the Wilson brothers who were cautiously enthusiastic and gave us the thumbs up to give it a try. The response from patrons and the greater community was simply amazing. There were probably 20 people at the first “service” on November 9th 2014, and after a front-page feature in The Charlotte Observer in March 2015 there are now regularly 40-50+ in attendance.

The Beaver, as it is known, has live music every Sunday afternoon starting around 5:00 pm, so we chose to have fellowship hour at 3:15, so we can be engaged in our own worship communities during the church hour and also get out of the way of the afternoon band. The bar is open for business at this time, and unsuspecting patrons have been known to wander in and out from the front patio. The format, like the place itself, is simple. After a short instrumental number, we welcome folks and the band plays three songs, usually of the classic country gospel variety like “I’m All Prayed Up” or “Using My Bible as a Roadmap.” The end of our time includes a time for sharing of joys and concerns, prayers, and an old fashioned gospel sing-along. In between is a message, usually about 7-10 minutes in length, that has Christian references and tone but tends to be universal, emphasizing community, love of God and neighbor, and reminding folks that it is in fact ok to do this in a bar.

Which brings us back to this idea of “sacred space.” This ministry of music, message, and fellowship at the Thirsty Beaver Saloon was not something dreamed up in a committee meeting or drafted on a dry erase board. It is not an off-shoot of a church young adults group or a form of emergent church evangelism. It is born of being watchful and patient and waiting for an opportunity in a space that cries out to be filled. Bar patrons are no different than any cross-section of American culture. They likely grew up going to church or being exposed to the rhythms of daily life when the church held much more sway in shaping societal norms. And these same people still long for a sense of community and for something sacred. Some still go to worship on Sunday mornings, but many more have fallen away from that sort of routine.

So on the first Sunday afternoon of each month we claim sacred space at the Thirsty Beaver Saloon on Central Avenue in Charlotte, NC. The small, bright-orange cinderblock dive lies in the shadows of a church building long ago abandoned, the For Sale sign on the door a stark reminder of how fleeting sacred space can be if we do not expand our minds to include all forms of community.

Rev. Danny Trapp is a member at large of Presbytery of Charlotte where he serves in validated ministry as Executive Director of MeckMin, an interfaith network of congregations and individuals who collaborate to foster understanding, compassion, and justice.