Jesus is Lord at the Flora-bama
Three million people stood shoulder to shoulder on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro this weekend to take part in mass as Pope Francis wrapped up his weeklong trip to Brazil. Meanwhile, on another beach over 4,000 miles away, my family and I attended a Sunday morning worship service in a bar.
Perdido Key United Methodist Church holds a contemporary church service at the Flora-bama every Sunday called “Worship on the Water.” I enjoy starting the week off with a good church service, my children are crazy about the ocean, and my husband loves bars, so “Worship on the Water,” sounded like a great fit for us.
Let me set the scene by telling you about our temple de jour. The Flora-bama is a beachside oyster bar located on the Alabama/Florida line. It is not much to look at from the outside, but then you enter and the aesthetics really take a nosedive. Everything is gritty and covered in sand. Every inch of this establishment, the splintered, pressure-treated plywood walls, the yellowing plexiglass windows, the poles holding the place up, even the ductwork drooping from the ceiling, are covered in graffiti: Angie loves Cooter always and 4-ever. Duane wuz here. At the lowest point of a slanting deck an employee vacuums water off the floor with a wet-dry vac. But there are also crayons and paper for children. There are pots of coffee on the bar that, hours before, held beer. There are Bibles. There are volunteers generously offering fans, bottled water, and welcomes.
There is a stage at the Flora-bama that is similar to the one in Roadhouse, but without the chain-link fence across the front. A sign has been hung above the stage in order to advertise for a bikini contest sponsored by Bud Light. A cross on a stand has been set on stage, front and center, and behind it are musicians. Collectively, they are “The Solid Rock in the Sand Band.” They are tuning their instruments and adjusting their microphone stands. It is 10:45am, and church is about to begin.
My family and I seat ourselves in the back at a picnic table. Most of the congregation sits in folding chairs that have been lined up like pews. Above the chairs hang string lights, and suspended from the string lights (spotted first by my 5 year old son) is a beige bra. A large one. The kind with four hooks in the back. He points it out to his sister, and jointly they loose their minds in laughter.
“Y’all quit laughing about that bra,” I scold. “They’re fixin to start church!”
The band leads us in “I Am Free.”. Like the “ring girls” at boxing events, female volunteers hold up large numbers, but these young women are tastefully dressed, and the numbers indicate the page to which we should turn in our “Honky Tonk Hymn Book” instead of the round that is shortly to begin.
The music was terrific. The message delivered by pastor Jeremy Mount was relevant and thought provoking. What really got to me, though, was saying The Lord’s Prayer. Those in attendance had come from all over for vacation and, thus, the church service. The visitor farthest from home on this particular morning had come from Paris, France. The act of sitting with 300 strangers, bowing our sweaty, sun-burned heads, and praying a prayer that each of us knew by heart, a prayer that millions of Christians were saying in Brazil and all over the world, made me feel as much like a member of the body of Christ as I have felt in quite some time.
Each of us is the Flora-bama. On the inside we may be splintered and broken, flooded, written on, even vandalized by those whom we’ve let inside, but each of us is also a temple in which God will dwell if we’ll open our doors. Church takes place in sanctuaries, and also in bars. Church goes on in prison. Church breaks out in Orange Beach, Alabama and Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro. My friend Chris describes the act of listening to a powerful worship song as “having church in my car.” And under persecution that American Christians don’t endure or even really contemplate, many across the world assemble underground, in homes. They risk life and limb, and they have church.