In Brooklyn, a Punk Church Tries to Redefine Religious Faith

A congregation founded by the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker ministers to the rebels and the doubters.

revolution-top.jpg Left to right: Reverend Vince Anderson (last.fm); Reverend Jay Bakker (revolutionnyc.com); a wall inside the dive bar where Revolution holds its services (roleATL/flickr)

"It's hotter than hell out here," mutters a man leaning against the defaced outside wall of a bar on Lorimer Street. He is smoking what remains of the cigarette he found on the curb, so I offer him two of mine. It is Easter Sunday, after all, and no one deserves a used cigarette. He tucks the fresh cigs into the breast pocket of his black leather jacket, and walks into the bar. There are two jagged holes in his tattered jeans. One is partially covered by a sloppily stitched Black Flag patch. The other hangs agape, revealing a Jesus fish tattoo on the back of his hairy thigh.

I follow him into the bar, watching as he spots and hugs a woman with two lip rings who brought her small dog along with her. They are joined by a younger looking man with long, slithery hair, who is wearing a skinny tie and has a tattoo of a crucifix peeking from beneath a rolled up dress-shirt sleeve. Soon they all have pints in their hands and are making their way to the dim room in the back of the bar. The man with the holes in his pants offers me the chair beside him. We clink our glasses together, but that is the last time we communicate. He is not in this Brooklyn bar at 4 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon to make small talk with a stranger. He is here to pray.

On Sunday afternoons, Pete's Candy Store— an unprepossessing dive bar tucked away near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway— becomes the home of Revolution, a non-denominational church for people who choose to preserve their religious faith through non-traditional means. Out of the 30 or so people present, only a smattering have Bibles open on their laps and most have pints of whatever on-tap beer cost the least amount of money.

At the front of this small backroom is a modest stage, illuminated by an arc of round, struggling light bulbs. Two of them have burned out, and two of them are missing. The state of disrepair gives the already dusky space an even darker portent, not dissimilar to a certain grunge-era music video featuring punk cheerleaders in a dirty gymnasium.

The church's co-pastor, Vince Anderson, greets the congregation with a friendly grin as he takes his place on the stage's lone wooden stool. I expect him to stand— which he never does— and begin the service with formal salutations and well-rehearsed Bible passages. Instead, he pulls out a bottle of red wine, for communion, and passes around a plastic grocery store bag of Easter chocolate. "If you like the marshmallow ones, you're gonna have to fight for 'em," he jokes, adding that Lutherans and pagans are always welcome in his church. We're already drinking beer in a bar on Easter Sunday— why not?

Reverend Anderson starts off with some announcements. A regular Revolution-going couple has just had a baby. Another member is in the hospital, recovering from back surgery. Then he preaches of trauma. He preaches of joy. He preaches of terror and amazement, and of the Gospel of Mark. He preaches of uncertainty and confusion, and of the months following his father's death in which he— still a reverend— became an atheist. "God allowed me to be an atheist," he tells the congregation, "because I needed nothing." He elaborates on the tumultuous relationship he had with his dad while he was still alive. I look up and see that the girl across from me— the one with the small dog— is crying.

"I don't know if I can get my head around the idea that Jesus was physically resurrected," he later admits to the group. The mood is lightened by laughter as those in attendance contemplate the practicality of certain biblical teachings, but it fades once again when Anderson recalls his suicidal college years. A handful of heads nod in empathy. He fills a heavy silence with a reassuring warrant: "There is room here for the doubters."

Anderson reads Allen Ginsberg's "Footnote to Howl," but omits the particularly indecent parts— after all, this is still a church, a point he marks with the respectful gesture of dressing in a suit. There is chocolate to eat, bread to break and, of course, the wine, which flows around the room in a communion chalice (alternatively, in shot glasses, for the germophobes) while Johnny Cash's "Breaking Bread" plays loudly in the background.

The collection plate circulates. The man with the holes in his pants, whom I had earlier found smoking a resurrected cigarette from the street, smooths out two crumpled $1 bills. Church for the week is over, and the congregation of misfits files outside in an orderly fashion. Worship is alive and well in Williamsburg, but it is more partial to Bad Religion than it is to the Holy Bible.

Punk and Christianity make for wary bedfellows, so this pack of leather-clad, beer-guzzling churchgoers is a curious sight. Punk culture is rooted in anti-authoritarianism, and Christianity is a system that functions through obedience. In England during the 1970s, punk was born from a sense of embittered fury. Bands like the Sex Pistols used it as an outlet to vent their frustration toward stifling political policies and working-class hardships. Their debut single, "Anarchy in the U.K.," begins with singer John Lydon hoarsely declaring he is an antichrist. On the song's release, the church was horrified at being mocked by a band whose virulent popularity was building steadily, one disenfranchised kid at a time. If you weren't with Christianity, you were against it, and punk certainly was.

So how could this congregation of crusty kids feel justified in having ichthys tattoos? What would John Lydon think? Were these churchgoers experiencing a holy conversion or being total hypocrites? As it turns out, neither, and the premise of Revolution is not as outlandish as it might seem.

"We all saw that there were a lot of kids who didn't feel like they were fitting in at church," says Anderson's Revolution co-pastor, Jay Bakker, who is also the founder. "We just saw this whole area of the church that seemed to be rejected."

Rejection is a feeling with which Bakker is well acquainted. As the son of shamed ex-televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye, Bakker learned just how quickly faith-based communities can crumble. In 1989, when Jay was 13, fraud and sex scandals turned his family into an American punch line. His father was found guilty on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy for mishandling the membership fees he solicited through his show, The PTL (Praise The Lord) Club. Jim Bakker was also accused of raping his church's secretary. He resigned from the ministry after it was revealed that he bribed her with PTL Club money to keep the allegations a secret. Jim and Tammy Faye eventually divorced.

Jay's depression took over and his addictions to drugs and drinking filled the loneliness left behind by a demolished family life and a glimpse of the dark underbelly of organized religion. Bakker says that his return to faith ultimately saved him, and that the church-imposed judgment and rejection he felt as a teenager are things he never wants his congregation to experience.

"We're here for you when you need it or when you want to be here," he says. "We're not demanding that people come to church every Sunday. We're not trying to create an army. We want to create a community, but at the same time, we want it to grow naturally and organically."

When presented in this light, the relationship between punk and Christianity is not so antithetical after all. "I don't think it's as peculiar as it seems on the surface," says Reverend Jesse Parker, about the fusion of Christianity and punk. "I don't see punk as being opposed to Christianity and I don't think that connection is nearly as strange as people make it out to be." Parker spent his youth playing in Toronto punk bands with violent-sounding names like Scare Tactic and Career Suicide.

Last year, he was ordained as a deacon and now preaches at Toronto's Anglican Church of St. Andrew. During the era of his life in which he considered himself a punk, Parker was straightedge, meaning that he abstained from drinking, drugs, and casual sex. "Perhaps deep down it was the same part of me that was attracted to punk rock that was attracted to Christianity," he says. "Perhaps it's the same part of me that is dissatisfied with the way that things are but is still hopeful about the way things could be."

Parker says that the ethos of punk is not all that different from the ethos of Christianity, and in fact, that the two often mirror each other in terms of how they officiate. "It is kind of a monastic community," Parker says of straightedge punk. "It's these young (predominantly) men, who come together and take these self-imposed vows, and there's kind of a dress code and they meet regularly at shows and there are elders in the community who are seen as superior. There's a really interesting kind of quasi-religious, quasi-monastic way about them— a rejection of the expectations of the world in favor of a way of life that will eventually lead them to some kind of higher purpose. In a different time, a lot of those kids who were attracted to the straightedge scene would have been the young novices in monasteries."

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Carly Lewis is a Canadian writer currently based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Vice, and The Walrus.

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