Punch-Drunk Church

Evangelicals find home in a Billyburg bar

Arms outstretched toward the heavens and tears streaming down his face, Dan Kurtz was having a religious experience at Trash Bar in Williamsburg. It was their regular Sunday-evening church service, and the Jesus-rock band onstage was amping up the volume. As the electric guitar swelled, Kurtz, a 26-year-old stagehand wearing wristbands and heavy earrings, was imbued with the spirit, shaking with sobs.

Trash Bar's customers usually come for the $3 PBRs and bands with names like Gaggle of Cocks and Clown Vomit. But today the back room, with its dramatic red walls and scruffy stage, has been taken over by dozens of Bible-wielding barflies here to praise the Lord.

Part outreach, part gimmick, the bar's church service is meant to break the stereotype of evangelical Christians as intolerant and provincial. It is hosted by the North Brooklyn Vineyard Church, which is part of the larger church-planting movement of the Association of Vineyard Churches, and led by Pastor Mike Turrigiano, a former heroin addict from the Bronx. (He was saved from a life of drugs, he says, after a year at a Christian rehab program.) This service, says Turrigiano, is "an entry point" for the neighborhood's young transplants. "Anyone can come," he says. "Well, anyone 21 or older."

The Trash Bar service, while unique in its location inside a Williamsburg bar, is not so out of the ordinary as a bridge between youth counterculture and church. Places like this "are gateway churches," says Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who edits The Revealer, a web magazine funded by NYU's Center for Religion and Media. "The idea is to get you in, to get you talking about Jesus." And it works. After just three weeks of attending the Trash Bar service, Kurtz has signed up for both a weekly Bible study and a book club with Vineyard. He'll now be spending three evenings a week with other Vineyard followers.

Asked about his crying fits, Kurtz says it happens to him every time. "It really gets into your heart. It's not even thinking it's on a totally different level."

Like most of the 40 or so regulars, Kurtz was attracted by the informal atmosphere. Turrigiano is preaching in a Yankees cap and flip-flops. For those who spend their Sunday mornings nursing hangovers, the service begins at a respectable time 6 p.m.

As Turrigiano preaches about surrendering to the Lord, images of Jesus and relevant Bible verses flash on the movie screen; he is assisted offstage by a young man with a laptop. A guy up front squeezes packets of sweet-and-sour sauce onto his take-out chicken as Turrigiano explains that to surrender means to deny the many forces of secular life: "The idols of pride, power, control, self-medication, family, friends, illicit sex, Internet pornography, legalism, self-righteousness, witchcraft, magic, cults, money, gambling, work, self-advancement, children, health, and security in old age."

The sermon is typical for Vineyard, a fairly straightforward evangelical church that steers clear of politics. Turrigiano won't answer questions about the church's stance on controversial issues like abortion or gay marriage.

"Aesthetically, it's a lot more liberal than a conservative evangelical church but that's not to say it is theologically more liberal," says Sharlet, who is also a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

After a little swaying and hand-raising, Trash Bar owner Aaron Pierce says that the crowd serves as a small but regular boost in business on a typically slow day. Although Vineyard members are conscious of the biblical warning against debauchery, most do enjoy a drink or two after the service. "Jesus turned water into wine so people could continue to celebrate at the wedding in Cana," says Robyn Sunde, a teacher who moved to New York from California. "I think He wants us to enjoy life, within limits."

Vineyard is not the only church in town that has used a barroom to attract a crowd. A few blocks away, Pete's Candy Store hosts an afternoon service led by Jay "One Punk Under God" Bakker, the son of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker. And recently, the Catholic Church finished up a series called "Theology On Tap" at Metro 53 in midtown.

At the end of the service, Turrigiano lets the band take over for a few minutes. If the lyrics about Jesus and the Holy Spirit didn't appear on the large screen, they would sound like any other Sunday-night band at Trash. A handful of people stand to take in the worship music, arms open, palms facing they sky and heads bowed in a stance of supplication. A few join in the song, which they know by heart; eyes shut tight, they sway to the melody of the electric guitars.

After a brief prayer, Turrigiano wishes his parishioners farewell: "God bless you. Get your hand stamped if you want to stick around, and remember to be nice to your bartenders."

 
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