Generally when you see a cross under a sign that says “Bud Light Bikini Contest,” it’s on the lower back of one of the contestants. But this is not the case on Sunday mornings at the Flora-Bama.
For the uninitiated, the Flora-Bama is famous as a multi-level roadhouse in Perdido Key, Florida, just outside Pensacola. The property straddles the Alabama state line, meaning it’s one of the few bars in the country where you can have a drink in two states at once. But on Sunday, it takes on an even rarer distinction. It's home to Worship on the Water, where a honky-tonk band plays hymnals while fine churchgoing folk sit elbow-to-elbow with sinners, lost souls, and a smattering of tourists.
Yes, you can drink in church
At the start of a recent Sunday morning service, the bar still has a lingering odor of stale liquor and faint smoke. The floors are clean, if a little sticky, and the only food comes from a hangover-friendly omelet station. On the stage where that bikini contest sign hangs, musicians are uncasing their instruments as they might to warm up for a Sunday afternoon gig at the famous stateline roadhouse. But as they get ready in front of a small cross, the gig right now is church.
The bar is open during both the 9am and 11am services, so you’re welcome to mosey up and order a Bloody Mary before finding a seat in one of the rows of plastic chairs. As the service revs up, a familiar ker-CRACK can be heard as someone near the back opens his second beer of the morning.
The bartender smiles when asked if he ever thought he’d end up bartending a church service. “Can’t say that I did,” he says as he mixes a woman’s morning vodka and V8. “But it’s a helluva lot easier than some nights we have here. And just different.”
Though this well might be the rare Sunday service where you can open a bar tab, nobody ever gets out of hand. “There’s been a time or two where someone has gotten a little loud but it's never been something that has caused a problem,” says Dan Stone, Worship on the Water's pastor.
It’s OK to not be OK
Services here date back to 2011, when owner Pat McClennon was approached by members of his United Methodist Church about moving the Worship on the Water service to the Flora-Bama. The congregation has anywhere from 600 members during the winter to upwards of 1,500 during peak season. The space in front of the stage has a few hundred plastic chairs, but the crowd can stretch back onto the beach behind the bar on busy days. People literally come from all over the world for church here. They even do baptisms in the Gulf of Mexico.
The service isn’t the fire-and-brimstone, shame to all ye sinners act that some southern churches can be. You could say, rather, that it has a high tolerance. The church crowd nursing beers on a Sunday morning are just living Worship on the Water's motto: “It’s OK to not be OK."
Hymnals and honky-tonk
The band starts off the service with a bluesy rendition of “Down by the Riverside,” as women walk the aisles holding up numbers, informing the congregation which hymn they’ll be singing. Like more-modestly-dressed ring card girls. Most in the crowd know the song, and through a slight morning beer buzz the service seems as much like the first act of a music festival as it does a praise to the almighty.
The crowd has plenty of the older people and young families you’d expect. Alongside them are younger people who seem to be here out of pure curiosity, or in some cases to take selfies of themselves in church at the Flora-Bama. Others appear to have only left the bar a mere six or seven hours ago, their bloodshot eyes betraying their pressed church clothes. A woman in the back hula-hoops through the entire service -- a way to stay in shape while she prays, she says.
“I know most of the people here,” Stone says during his sermon. “And none of ‘em are anywhere near perfect.” The crowd laughs knowingly. “We’ve all done things we may not be proud of," he continues. "But we welcome everyone. God welcomes everyone, because God knows none among us are perfect.”
Stone is no stranger to sin, having moved to Worship on the Water from Central Church in Las Vegas. When the congregation's original pastor, Jeremy Mount, re-enlisted in the military, Stone was invited to take over the reigns. He only took one visit to be convinced.
"When I came out and experienced the services and the people, we felt God asking us to come be a part of the church," he says.
The crowd nursing beers on a Sunday morning are just living the church's motto: "It’s OK to not be OK."
The service is a series of sermons and speeches, interspersed with numbers out of the Honky Tonk Hymnal placed on each chair (the back cover reminding everyone “Thou shalt not steal”). The church has a sense of humor, a relaxed vibe. Churches struggling to attract younger people could learn from the atmosphere here.
“What’s happening here at Flora-Bama is special, no doubt,” says Stone. “But it’s not the only thing God is up to. God uses all kinds of ministries. We aren’t better, or worse.
“A bar church is not required to reach people," he continues. "That's just the place we meet. Wherever you meet, God is up to something special, too.”
The church concludes with an upbeat rendition of “I’ll Fly Away,” as people who might otherwise never cross paths introduce themselves and help put away chairs. A motley crew of churchgoers who may have nothing in common other than going to church in a bar are polite, civil, friendly, and welcoming to all, even those of different faiths.
If nothing else, Sunday mornings at the Flora-Bama remind us that no matter how different our viewpoints may be, there's always reason to keep faith. Be that in a higher power, or just in your fellow human beings.
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