This past summer I, like so many others, ended up at the beach for a few days. I was there to spend some quality time with my mother and grandmother before the coming fall semester. Needless to say, I was not there to party. So, when my mother suggested going to the Flora-Bama lounge, at first I thought she was joking. To call the Flora-Bama a beach bar is really underselling it. It is a Redneck Riviera institution. Heck, Jimmy Buffett has even sung about it.
Come to find out, my mother wanted to go to church. Worship @ The Water it’s called. For the past two years, every Sunday morning, the Flora-Bama has provided the space and Perdido Bay United Methodist Church has provided the service. A large tent lined with beer flags and a small stage that probably featured live music and late night revelry just a few hours earlier has been transformed into a sanctuary. Rows and rows of chairs have been set up and supplied with copies of The Honky Tonk Hymnal.
Church volunteers are freely handing out ice-cold bottles of water to give a helping hand to the steady gulf breeze on this hot late summer day. Look over your shoulder and you will see the Gulf of Mexico just across the white sandy beach. As people filter in, a band plays a lively set of new and newly interpreted songs with an undeniable (and loud) honky-tonk vibe.
As the service is about to begin the place is packed, and I don’t mean the bar. I’m guessing there are about 400 people attending the service. Some have dressed nice; slacks, shoes, shirts with buttons. Many are already dressed for a day at the beach; flip-flops and bathing suit cover-ups. As casual as it is, as unconventional as the setting is, this is a very traditional southern Methodist Sunday service (perhaps just a little louder).
There is a sermon, there is singing, there is a call for offerings, and there is Communion. Granted, the pastor gives his sermon beneath a ‘Bud-Lite Bikini Contest’ banner, and, granted, the bar is open for business during the service, Worship @ The Water has taken the initiative to go to where the people are.
This is not an entirely new idea. Jay Baker, the prodigal son of famed televangelist Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, for example, has been holding meetings for his Revolution Church in bars and coffee shops for many years now. While Jay Bakker was featured in a Sundance Channel documentary series, One Punk Under God, Worship @ The Water records and posts all of their services on their Facebook page. But, where the Revolution Church is reaching out to a younger subculture, Worship @ The Water seems geared toward a more traditional Southern Protestant crowd, albeit one that’s on vacation and, just maybe, searching for that lost shaker of salt.
About Joel McDanal
I have always been enthralled by discovering the new or different ways of understanding and experiencing the world that can be found in different religions. Religious Studies is in many ways a narrowing, or focusing, of what I first found so engaging about anthropology. Religion is a human universal; everybody may not be religious (or at least some may think they’re not) but everywhere you go you find religion. To be human is to be religious, in some form or fashion, whether one wants to be or not. It is where culture, tradition, history, philosophy, art, literature, mystery, curiosity, understanding, fear, and happiness are all woven together.
Joel is majoring in Religious Studies at Georgia State University.