Erica Whitaker thoughtfully pondered the plate of crackers presented to her, examining each of the different brands available for Communion this Palm Sunday.
Slowly, she ran a finger from her chin to a very yellow selection on the plate, and smiled at the woman presenting it to her.
“Probably not Cheez-Its, thank you,” said Whitaker, senior pastor of Baptist Church in Buechel Park in Louisville, Kentucky.
It inspired a few laughs, but certainly no raised eyebrows. Not when the Lord’s Supper that night was to be served at Krazy Dave’s, a bar-grill that shares a working-class neighborhood with the Whitaker congregation.
Mixing the sacred and the mundane is standard operating procedure for the dozen or so church members who attend Whitaker’s weekly Bible study Sunday night at the pub. But communion was a new twist added only to mark the start of Holy Week.
“If Jesus did (communion) in an upper room, could it have been above a bar? Church member Rhonda Beverly offered after taking the sacrament just 30 feet from a pair of active pool tables. “Deep things happen all the time in ordinary places.”
Whitaker said Holy Sundays – the name of the bar-based Bible study – is not about winning souls or imparting doctrine.
“This is not pub theology,” she added, referring to popular bar programs run by a designated pastor or teacher delivering a lesson or message.
Whitaker is known to Krazy Dave’s as “The Sermonator,” a title that reflects the master’s degree in divinity she obtained from Baylor’s Truett Seminary before arriving at Buechel Park Baptist, a congregation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, in 2016. .
But she never preaches during Bible study, choosing instead to ask questions and stay away from discussions.
“She asks provocative questions and she’s there for follow-up questions,” said Carrie Bearden, deacons president at Buechel Park Baptist and a faithful Sunday night Bible study participant.
Bearden said the gatherings around food, adult drink, and scripture inspired her, a longtime Baptist, to begin auditioning seminary classes.
“Erica isn’t telling us what to believe. She just had a conversation with us and. . . it leads us to re-imagine things.
True to form, Whitaker started the conversations (and debates) among the participants gathered around two long end-to-end tables. Their assignment was to read Luke 22: 14-38. Initially, she simply asked them their opinion on the passage.
Some have taken the conversation on a tangent. Others remained focused on the laser. Topics included the Passover and other Jewish practices, zealots in New Testament times, and the apostle Peter’s tendency to – in Whitaker’s words – put his foot in that mouth.
“Does Peter get the message?” ” she asked.
“Did Peter get the message yet?” Her husband, Josh, replied.
Another participant asked if it was possible that Peter was a member of the Zealots.
“This is a very big question. I have no idea, ”Whitaker said. She urged participants to keep looking for new perspectives.
An observation of modern day fundamentalists appropriating Jewish terminology and practices in their own worship sparks another thread of conversation around the table. Whitaker didn’t bite.
“Isn’t that interesting? ” she said. “What do we do with it?”
These were the same questions Krazy Dave’s regulars asked about the people of Buechel Park Baptist when Bible study began a year ago.
It all started when Whitaker witnessed a visit from a woman who had been a loyal customer of the bar. At the event, she met the owner of the Krazy Dave, who in turn invited the minister to a memorial held at the company.
“It was my first time in the bar,” Whitaker said. “It was a moment of sharing, reflection and drinking, and I met a few people. One of the bartenders is a member of our church.
There were other links between the bar and the church, and after about six weeks hanging out at Krazy Dave’s, Whitaker said it hit her.
“I thought how cool would it be if they could provide us with a space for a Bible study and we could provide them with more income on Sunday evenings when they are low in attendance?” “
Around this time, another bar patron died and Whitaker was invited to perform the funeral. This helped seal the growing relationship between Krazy Dave’s and Buechel Park Baptist, which are located within walking distance of each other.
“Our Bible study started because of the deaths of two people,” Whitaker said.
The links have continued to deepen.
“I married one of the bartenders this summer,” Whitaker said. “A number have come to church once or twice at Buechel Park.”
And, from time to time, someone sitting at the bar or playing pool will participate in the Bible study.
Kevin Osborne, known as the “KO,” has participated in both Sunday study and worship, even though he identifies as a Southern Baptist.
“It’s different,” Osborne said of seeing members of a Baptist church headed by a female pastor and meeting in the bar where he is a regular.
“She’s very good,” he said of Whitaker. “His take on things is very interesting.
Osborne praised the group for not being judgmental or aloof when they are at Krazy Dave’s. It is an approach that makes the group and its leader more accessible.
“It puts the church on a new path,” he said.
At one point on Sunday evening, Whitaker rose from the discussion and asked participants to “discuss the idea of loving our enemies.” What would it look like? “
Then she slipped between the two tables. “I’ll have another drink. “
Animated conversations ensued. Some have debated what an enemy is and what it is not – is the definition limited to those that mean physical damage? Can it include those who seek political and cultural power over others?
“We have to see people beyond labels,” said one participant. “It bothers me that the culture views Christianity as fundamentalist,” said another. At another table, it was noted that English speakers are limited by having only one word for “love“.
“We have to learn to love ourselves before we can love our enemies,” said one woman.
Whitaker returned to ask if it was possible that Peter was ready to die for Christ without really loving him, to do so for his own political or religious reasons.
“Jesus asks,” Are you ready to follow me in a way that you have never done? ” “, did she say.
Perhaps this is where Peter’s attitude turns from a zealot to a true disciple, one participant suggested.
“This is the hard, radical work that Jesus calls us to do,” replied Whitaker.
The idea of having a Bible study in a bar was just as inspiring and radical, at least at first.
“For the first six months it was very difficult for our church, and for me as a pastor, to think about something so unconventional,” recalls Whitaker.
The refusal of some members of the congregation led to doubts as to whether this tension could be maintained.
Some did not want their church to be associated with a tavern, regardless of the nature of the relationship. There was also concern that Baptists openly identified themselves as such while consuming alcohol so publicly.
“But then you start to see the fruits of your labor,” Whitaker said.
These fruits included the subtle and the less subtle. It was seeing the occasional bar patron show up for Sunday worship, expressing a level of comfort with church – and with Baptists – that they had never felt before. He was approached by new friends at the pub on sacred and secular matters. And it was seeing Baptist members in Buechel Park showing their neighbors how to live and strive in the faith.
This once inspired a Krazy Dave’s client to donate to the church playground renovation project.
As Whitaker recalled, the man said, “I probably won’t come to your church, but I love what you’re doing here. Here is $ 1,000. “
Some wonder why the participants don’t at least try to win souls for Christ.
But in a way, they really are, said Bearden, building lasting and meaningful relationships with neighbors.
“People come here and sometimes sit with us. They see Christians having a drink and talking about the Bible. Sometimes we’re loud, sometimes we’re serious. It shows what Christians can look like.
It is also showing people inside and outside the congregation that the life of the church should be embedded in the community around it without expecting anything in return.
“It’s the re-imagining of the church in the local community,” Whitaker said. “We are genuine and consistent with our presence without any conditions. This is the key.