Turns out there’s at least one bar in Charlotte where the patrons are thirsty for more than beer – at least on one Sunday afternoon of every month.
That’s when many of the regulars at the Thirsty Beaver Saloon show up to hear a sermon, tap their toes to country gospel music, and ask one another to pray for ailing mothers and other special intentions.
Instead of statues, crosses and stained glass windows, the 20 to 30 people who worship at this tiny watering hole in Plaza Midwood are surrounded by a portrait of Waylon & Willie, a poster of down-home wine merchants Bartles & James and lunchboxes promoting “Hee Haw” and “Gunsmoke.”
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But what “The Thirsty Beaver Good Time Fellowship Hour” lacks in churchiness, it more than makes up in its robust sense of community. If you’re a member of this congregation, everybody really does know your name.
“You don’t have to dress up and go to a church building for fellowship,” said the Rev. Danny Trapp, a Presbyterian minister who’s also executive director of MeckMin, an interfaith group of about 100 congregations. “It’s the community aspect that makes the space sacred.”
Trapp, who does the short sermons every month, and Jim Garrett, who’s in charge of the music, came up with the idea of offering their fellow bar patrons something a little different once a month. The bar’s Charlotte-born owners, Brian and Mark Wilson, whose father is retired Methodist minister Ben Wilson, gave their blessing. This past Sunday was the fifth service at the bar, 1225 Central Ave. They start at 3 p.m. and are over no later than 4:30 p.m., most months on the second Sunday.
“It’s not pretentious or Bible-thumping stuff,” said singer-guitarist Garrett “We play a lot of Gospel, which embodies the true feelings inside people. It makes you feel comfortable – it’s a feel-good music that was born from plain folks.”
On this past Sunday, Garrett and his bandmates – David Russell on banjo and Steve Foley on bass – played “Amazing Grace,” “I’ll Fly Away,” songs made popular by Randy Travis, Hank Williams and Vince Gill, and one that began “I’m using my Bible as a road map.”
Typically, newer churches will start out holding services in schools or movie theaters. And some houses of worship even organize networking nights out at pubs for its younger members.
But turning the saloon into a religious locale for an hour once a month appears to take the alternative-site trend to a new level. Attendees belly up to the bar, and often order a beer to go with the singing, preaching and sharing.
Bob Campbell, wearing a Superman cap this past Sunday, has attended every bar service since they began last year.
“A lot of people here are spiritual, but have gotten away from organized religion,” said Campbell, 61, who grew up Presbyterian in Florida, moved to Charlotte 25 years ago and now works in the road building machinery business. “But church is community. And all of us know each other.”
For Leigh Ann Robertson, 32, who lives in NoDa and works for a utility, her first service Sunday made her feel cozy, connected and at home.
“I loved it,” she said. “I’m very anti the megachurch.”
In between song sets this past Sunday, Trapp quoted Jesus and Abraham Lincoln about how the “Great Commandment” – Love God and love your neighbor – matters most.
Some members of traditional churches, he said, “have a distorted way of loving God, but hating their neighbor. Which is why it makes sense to gather in this place and spend time together. Here we accept our neighbors for who they are – doctor, lawyer, preacher, biker.”
After Trapp, it was the patrons’ turn to ask for prayers.
Dave Murphy, 58, a teacher in Charlotte, mentioned his 88-year-old mother, who’s “getting weaker by the day” in a Kentucky nursing home.
Brian Wilson, 45, who opened the bar just over seven years ago with his brother Mark, didn’t ask for prayers Sunday. But he said his hopes for the service have so far been realized – and his fears averted.
No one has complained, he said, and the services mirror the brothers’ message to patrons: “Be nice to each other, no matter who the other person is or even if you disagree.”
As for churchgoers who might not see a bar as the place to be on a Sunday, Trapp has an answer: “Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him. He hung out in places that upset the religious bureaucracy of his time.”