Finding God in a Watering Holeby Erika Eichelberger
Williamsburg is brimming with signs of spirituality: bands of Hasidic mamas pushing strollers over the bridge, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans rocking flashy crucifixes, yoga-mat toting ladies on their way to Sunday meditation class. But for the young and hip, Christianity seems passé.
Look closely though and you’ll find a couple enclaves of culturally conscious Christianity right in the hood. Late on Sunday afternoons—about the time when hipsters try to shake off the sins of the night before—both Pete’s Candy Store and Trash Bar play host to services for those put off by the institutional aspects of the Church. For a twenty-something who grew out of Christianity in junior high, church hasn’t been a part of my world for a long time. But on a couple of Sundays this summer, I experienced a bit of a revelation.
On a hot Sunday afternoon in front of Trash Bar, the North Brooklyn Vineyard, a branch of the international organization of evangelical Vineyard churches, is handing out fliers and free hot dogs. A few people stray in. It’s August, so things are quieter. After grabbing PBRs, folks head to the back room and arrange themselves on old van bench seats around the stage. Amber Wigfield starts things off with a string of Christian ballads. The congregation sings along, some with eyes closed and hands uplifted. Then Pastor Mike, wearing cargo pants and an easy smile, jumps up onstage to talk about Abraham in his thick endearing Bronx accent.
Mike Turrigiano began pastoring with the Vineyard over 30 years ago, after sobering up and meeting Jesus, as he says. He and his midtown congregation used to hang out at an Irish pub after church and decided five years ago that it would be a great idea to find a place “where we could do both in one spot.” He posted an ad on Craigslist and hit it off with Trash Bar.
“We felt drawn to Williamsburg because, although it seems very secular and artsy and biased against Christianity in general, most people here come to pursue their dream,” explains Pastor Mike. “If you get to the bottom of that you find a hunger for a better world, this feeling that there’s something better out there. Well, you’re right. Now let me show you how that happens, and basically it’s Jesus.”
Church at Trash tries to give off less of a religious flavor though, in order to maneuver around negative stereotypes. “We’re not coming across as religion—we’re just telling the story of the Kingdom of God.” Because of this, Pastor Mike says, “We find that people belong before they believe.”
The secular staff at Trash are big fans of the Sunday meetings. Owner Aaron Pierce calls himself a believer in his fellow man. “I know that the story and the idea of faith help people through their journeys on the planet. I make no judgments and don’t have any problems with it.” Besides, he laughs, “Given the chaos the place absorbs over the week, we could use a little God on Sunday.”
Bartender Eric Kingrea, who was raised Jewish, and has become good friends with the North Brooklyn Vineyard people, thinks church in a bar is a great idea. “You’re doing basically what Jesus tried to do. Trash Bar has its fair share of sinners.”
Church at Trash is an undeniably progressive approach, and this Vineyard’s politics are fairly progressive as well. But adherence to doctrine inevitably bedevils their open, accepting perspective.
Pastor Mike is all about experiencing God rather than following rules and rites. He talks about having a relationship with Jesus, rather than being religious, about how those in positions of power in the church have corrupted Christ’s message and made faith into an institution. “We were just supposed to be the mailmen delivering the mail. Somehow along the way we got it all mixed up and thought the mail was all for us.”
Curiously though, those who didn’t get the mail won’t be returned to sender. Instead, they will still go to hell. When it comes to this rather large question, Turrigiano admits he doesn’t know the reason why. “How could it be so exclusive? Guess what, I can’t answer that.”
In his sermon, Pastor Mike says that God handed down the story of Abraham to illustrate true faith, instead of instructions on how to believe. This is because “God knows if we’re given a recipe for faith, we’ll turn it into un-faith, into an idol. That’s what happens in a lot of Christian circles. Each one of us needs to develop our own faith and everybody’s journey is a little bit different.” My attention is piqued. What is this beautiful heresy? The only answer offered is a logic-defying twist: “There’s no universal formula, only Jesus.”
Revolution Church at Pete’s Candy Store, however, really has rounded the bend into beautiful heresy.
Jay Bakker, who started Revolution NYC in 2007 after a few iterations around the country, has a mischievous elfin look, with thick glasses and loads of tattoos. His knuckles read “Help Me Lord.” Bakker, the prodigal son of televangelists and Christian theme park founders Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, says he grew up “surreal” until age 11 when a huge scandal hit his parents and turned his world upside down. Though he stood by his parents, he says he was “exposed to the dark underbelly of religion.”
As a teenager Jay drank and partied, questioned his faith, and tried to be normal. A bar church is the kind of church he wishes he had had growing up. “Meeting in a bar is the greatest neutral ground in the world because you’re not on the street corner preaching at people and also people don’t feel like they have to come into a church, which might seem threatening.” Later in 2007, Bakker partnered up with Reverend Vince Anderson, the voice of Williamsburg gospel. The two co-pastor at Revolution and often invite guest preachers to speak.
The crowd here is decidedly young and hip. They chat about tattoo envy and the audacity of throat tattoos as they roll in and pack to standing room the little music room in the back of the bar.
Brian Yarbrough from Anchor Church in Houston is guest speaker today. I’m ready for another helping of friendly evangelism, but what I’m served is downright radical, even revolutionary. “This pure form of the pursuit of the God question has to be reconciled in each of us,” Yarbrough says. “And that may take the form of Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu or all the other religions that we think aren’t as important as ours.” Say what? I do know Christians who view Christianity as a cultural choice that works for them, rather than the only key to the pearly gates. But I’ve never heard this viewpoint articulated and promoted by a member of an organized religion itself.
Yarbrough goes on to talk about fostering love and community—what religion purports to bring to society—through honesty. “The more honest we are about the problems we have with other Christians, with faith, with religion, the less easy it is to demonize people who don’t believe in the same things we do.”
This is what Bakker calls Christian agnosticism. “I do believe in Jesus and I do believe in God and all that stuff, but at the end of the day I can’t tell you 100% yes or no.” How did he arrive at this conclusion? Through lots of reading, yes, but mostly through respecting and loving people, he says.
Because Christ is love is God, and Christ is the center point of the Bible, Bakker regards much of the holy book in historical context—as an “evolving human understanding of God.” “For me it’s hard to believe in a loving god that tortures people for eternity.” He calls the afterlife “a nice idea” but wants to focus on the kingdom of god on earth, and helping people avoid hell on earth.
Yet merely preaching about God’s love can be lip service, Bakker says. In a recent sermon, he cites 1 Corinthians 13:2: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” He wants Revolution to be love, not just talk about it. “We have to make and manifest the very heart of grace,” he says. Revolution should be a state of infinite love and acceptance, he maintains, whether you’re a believer or not. “And if that means we’re not a church, maybe we shouldn’t be a church.”
If the establishment Church wants to stay (or rather become) relevant, it needs to take a cue from Revolution. Bakker says institutional Christianity “needs to get back down to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Keep it pure, he urges.
By extension, he says, the Church needs to become a beacon of progress in society, instead of a reluctant straggler, when it comes to issues like homosexuality and women in leadership positions. “Like MLK said, the church is often the tail light instead of the headlight. We need to be the headlight.”
Bakker’s Revolution is part of a worldwide movement branded the Emergent Church, a subset of Christians who are asking questions, who are holding church in alternative spaces, who are choosing acceptance over division. It’s been called a new Reformation.
Christian agnosticism verges on Buddhism in a way. The Buddha taught a way to access God or Oneness, but he never said those who didn’t follow him would rot eternally. This approach offers up Christianity as one train among many with the same destination. It just depends on what kind of scenery you like watching out the window.
Reverend Vince and his Love Choir play every Monday night at Union Pool, where sinners never stop congregating. I haven’t met Jesus, as they say. But hearing Reverend Vince was a religious experience for me. I laughed, I danced, I sang along. Gin and tonic in hand, tears streaming down my face, I felt pure.
ERIKA EICHELBERGER is a writer based in Williamsburg.