Atlanta Beer & Hymns and Bar Church have ‘radical welcome’ for LGBT faithful

Most people in town know of Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium, or as most people call it, “Church.” There’s even a neon sign in the window saying “Church (It’s a bar!)”

Well, meet Atlanta Beer & Hymns and Bar Church—it’s an actual church.

Atlanta Beer & Hymns and Bar Church, which has no affiliation with the aforementioned bar on Edgewood Avenue, is an LGBT-inclusive “gathering of seekers, sinners and saints” that meets every other Sunday evening at Smith’s Olde Bar in Midtown.

It’s the brainchild of Karen Slappey, “Curator of Community” for the group, who just received her master of divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and is pursuing ordination. But church, in a bar?

“For me the ‘Why in a bar?’ question came from the fact that I was raised Pentecostal and someone tried to cast a demon out of me when I was 16. It didn’t work,” Slappey tells Georgia Voice. “I found community in bars, and invariably I would end up talking to people at the bars about God, and most of the people who I have met who are seeking community at bars are people on the LGBTQ spectrum because they had become disenfranchised from the church.”

After all, alcohol and religion aren’t total strangers—”water into wine” and such. It’s an alternative form of worship that is catching on in the city’s LGBT community.

(Photo courtesy Atlanta Bar Church)
(Photo courtesy Atlanta Bar Church)

A new home and a new service

Slappey got the idea for Atlanta Beer & Hymns and Bar Church after visiting the Wild Goose Festival, a social justice and spirituality arts and music festival in North Carolina. The sight of people drinking alcohol while singing hymns moved her to bring something similar to Atlanta, and in March 2014 the first Beer & Hymns event was held at Manuel’s Tavern, with people raising a glass as they sang old-school church hymns.

Later that year the event moved to Smith’s Olde Bar, although management had worries about bar sales.

“There was just this assumption that because it was a church thing, there wouldn’t be drinking. I said, ‘I think we’ll be okay,'” Slappey says, laughing.

As time went on, those who took part in the Beer & Hymns event began to want something more—they still didn’t want to go to a church, but they wanted to take communion. So they added a full-fledged church service called Bar Church, alternating with Beer & Hymns every other Sunday evening.

Bar Church includes hymns, prayers, taking communion, and even a break to pack hundreds of lunches for local homeless shelters—all in a bar. Congregants often replace traditional hymns with secular music that has a spiritual theme. So far they’ve had liturgies from U2, the Beatles, Mumford & Sons and Coldplay, and at the service on Nov. 30 it was REM’s turn.

Both Bar Church and Beer & Hymns average about 50 to 60 people a night, although Slappey says they haven’t done any advertising save for promoting the events on Facebook.

‘It’s just … healing some of those past wounds of the church’

Noe Herren heard about Atlanta Bar Church and Beer & Hymns from her friends in seminary at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. As a lesbian who had had bad experiences with the church, this was something that spoke to her.

“The reason I’m in seminary is because of years and years of bad theology being shoved down my throat and thinking something was wrong with me and thinking God couldn’t love me this way,” Herren says.

She stepped away from the church for several years but came back when she found some affirming people, and now she says she wants to be that affirming voice for others.

“It’s just kind of healing some of those past wounds of the church. I think that’s something that a lot of LGBTQ persons in the South can relate to,” she says. “Those harsh messages from the church and just getting to a place where you realize ‘Oh wait a minute, God does love me and I can be a part of this in a way that’s fruitful.'”

Herren is now an intern and plays with the band at Atlanta Beer & Hymns and Bar Church and is pursuing ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Christmas carols are in store for the next Beer & Hymns event on Dec. 13, with a Christmas Eve Bar Church service up next after that on Dec. 24 at Smith’s. It’s a sense of community that Slappey plans on spreading into the New Year, with newcomers routinely finding more in common with the regulars than they expected.

“Everything that we do kind of comes from the fact that we all, even those that are doing this, have huge doubts,” she says. “I mean I doubt more than I believe most days. But we are a place of radical welcome. That’s nonnegotiable.”

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