I used to hear pastors joke about visiting neighboring towns in order to be able to buy Southern Comfort comfortably. The awkward conversations and stares that have occurred between clergy and parishioners as they make eye contact in liquor store aisles would be an interesting coffee table book (Episcopalians are of course excused from this self-imposed embarrassing interaction). Recently I was leaving a local grocery store in the community where I serve and had picked up a few libations as hospitality offerings for a social gathering later that afternoon when I ran into an individual from our church. My liquid spirits were not in a bag, instead, they hung loosely in one of my hands. The person and I chatted, nothing beyond the “good to see you” and “I hope the rain holds off today” idle chit-chat. We said our goodbyes and it wasn’t until I got in my car that the thought crossed my mind of what had been in my hand. For a generation of Baptist pastors, and certain Protestants groups now, this might have been a moment of experienced taboo…
But I’m not that kind of Baptist pastor.
Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber has spoken of her conviction in her published works and in several interviews to be a “pastor to her people.” Bolz-Weber feels a kinship to those in her community that don’t have a pastor or who aren’t typically welcomed into a traditional Christian community, i.e. those who identify as LGBTQ. From what I can tell, she is acting as a representation of Christ’s love to a group who has been shunned more by those claiming to be followers of Christ than welcomed and loved by them. According to her church’s website, Bolz-Weber and her congregation meet in a church which looks traditional. This means that those who might have a negative connotation towards “steeples” might have to set that aside in order to enter into this space. Bolz-Weber’s reputation precedes her and helps in that process, but it still presents a bit of overcoming for those who feel they are on the outside.
That’s why I like going to places where most church folk won’t, admittedly anyway, set foot in. These places, or what I would call “seedy sanctuaries,” are where raunchy reverends and misfit ministers need to frequent. Dive bars and bootleg houses make the list. Of course, I’m not entering these territories with the evangelical assurance and zeal of a cocky street preacher. Instead, I enter as just another fly on the wall; an individual looking for something cold to drink, and a place to share my story with others around the proverbial watering hole for a couple of hours. In this arena, I’m living out what Baptists call the “priesthood of all believers”. Everyone is on equal ground...especially when cheap beer is on draft.
I’ve had some deep and great conversations about faith in these shady places. I’ve drunk Guinness and prayed with a couple whose daughter was sick and I’ve offered a defense to others who thought they were beyond redemption. Between prayers and pints, I’ve made friendships and hopefully given folks in those moments a different look at what a pastor/preacher can be. And while this works for some, not all traditional church folk are on board. This is nothing new of course. People have been arguing since Pentecost on how to live out the Christ-centered community. Recently I’ve been reading an account of the start of Koinonia Farms and Clarence Jordan. Jordan and a handful of other pastors wanted to experiment a way of living which looked like the early first century Church; being in unity in all things and likewise sharing in their possessions. During the first several years, Jordan and others visited Hutterite and Bruderhof communities who were practicing a similar lifestyle. After a few visits to one of those communities, a family who had been on the farm for quite some time thought that the other group was living this mission out in a better way. They exchanged letters, and in one Jordan admits the shortcomings of himself and the community of Koinonia. While voicing his understanding that this experiment on a farm in South Georgia wasn’t perfect, he also says, “All of us know how much darkness there is in us at times, yet I have seen the light of God shining brilliantly in this little group here and I thrill to be part of it.”
I’ve seen this brilliant light of God too, shining on folks between beer taps and fluorescent signs.
I once had an individual question why a group of ministers, myself included, met at a local bottle shop to hold an interdenominational study. Why couldn’t we meet in a coffee shop or restaurant? The easy answer; because that’s where my people are and they're entitled to the good news too. For some, it’s hard to get past these types of locations. These are simply stumbling blocks for them.
I’m here to tell them they don’t have to. For those in those spaces, they have me and others like me.
Cheers to the oddballs on the offbeat path of faith.
Cheers to the God who loves them all the same.
As you were,