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."

Hannah Malone has attended Revolution for the past four years. (At her request, I've changed her name.) Having grown up in the Bible Belt, she says, she felt so "beyond sheltered" by her Christian school that when she turned 18, she packed her possessions into garbage bags and ran away from home without even leaving a note. Eventually she found herself in New York. "I had no outlet to meet people because I worked all the time," she says.

But she was intrigued when a coworker told her about Revolution. "I felt like I needed people in my life," she says. "And I started to feel like a good way to do that would be church. But I definitely didn't want to go to a normal church." The girl she sat beside on her first Sunday at Revolution was wearing thigh-high pleather boots, a mini-skirt, and "mega Goth makeup." Malone herself sports a Debbie Harry-meets-Amy Winehouse aesthetic, and the girl's style made her feel comfortable. "I thought, 'I know I'm in the right place. I'm not alone. Everybody has a spot here.'"

There's some irony in the comfort Malone felt at seeing a girl her age who looked like her in church. "Christians feel they've succeeded if they make you look like them," says Graham Taylor, a retired Church of England vicar. "What Christians want to do is clone people to be like themselves. The punk scene is very much about individuality."

Taylor spent his youth backstage, in mosh pits, and working as a roadie for bands like The Stranglers and The Sex Pistols. On the many nights that John Lydon sang, "I'm a jealous God and I want everything," Taylor raised his fist in solidarity with his employer. "The threat of nuclear war hung over our heads," says Taylor of the '70s. "It was all very different then. Something had to come to give people a motive— a motive for living, really."

Taylor went on to make a name for himself not as roadie or a vicar, but as the best-selling author of fantasy novels that contain Christian allegory. As we discuss his fiction, I ask him this: If punk is anti-establishment and Christianity is an establishment, is it not profoundly hypocritical to pledge allegiance to both?

"I'm not saved by the lord," Taylor replies quickly. "I'm saved by grace. I don't adhere to Leviticus. I don't adhere to the Old Testament. I adhere to the teachings of Jesus, which are very straightforward: 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.' It doesn't say anything about what I've got to wear, or the length of my hair, what color my hair is or whether I've got a tattoo."

If anything, Taylor contends, the punk ethos may be more Christ-like than Christianity itself. "I don't think church is like a gathering of punks at all. The gathering of punks would be a lot more cheerful, to start off with. I don't think the punks would be so content on criticizing each other. I don't think a gathering of punks would be as judgmental toward each other as a group of Christians."

***

The following Sunday at Revolution, the congregation is noticeably smaller than it was on Easter. It is, once again, hotter than hell. "It's like a sauna in here," quips Bakker. The bartender leaves his post to turn on the overhead fan, which shaves one degree, maybe two, off of the temperature. This is a community that sweats together, and there are no complaints. Bakker is delivering the sermon this week. "We try to not have just one person speak all the time," he told me in an earlier phone conversation. This is to prevent the church from establishing one singular leader, which could make it resemble a cult.

The service begins with announcements, as usual, and the smokers quietly shuffle in a few minutes late from outside. The man with the holes in his pants sits down in front of me. He is wearing the same jeans as last week, and they appear to not have been washed. The Black Flag patch is still hanging on, but the other hole has widened over the past seven days.

Bakker informs the congregation that the Revolution pastors have set up a Google Doc to schedule visits with the hospitalized church member who has just had surgery. He suggests that people bring meals to this man once he is discharged, as he will be unable to cook for himself during the recovery phase. The iPad containing the Google Doc will be at the back of the room after the sermon for anyone wishing to visit or cook. With that out of the way, Bakker launches into a sermon about sex.

"Sex is always a topic people want to talk about," says Anderson. "There's so much baggage around that. We've done a lot of sermons about premarital sex and what the Bible actually says about it. But I still think people want to hear about grace."

Revolution is a strongly gay-affirming church, and Bakker is an advocate for queer religious rights. In this, he is aligned with a broadly defined postmodern strand of Christianity that separates itself from the rules of the institutionalized church. This larger movement is in the process of reexamining the pillars of modern worship and the nature of religion, and it advocates for social change (such as queer and reproductive rights) inside Christianity. Unsurprisingly, it has traditionalists in a panic. It questions authority. It rejects the patterns of history. It bends the rules. It allows people to drink on Sundays. It lets gay Christians come to church without having to hide their sexuality.

Unconditional acceptance is something Revolution prides itself on. It was also among the founding principles of punk rock. And it is in the Bible. Proverbs 10:12 reads: "Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses." If punk and Christianity are strange bedfellows, the emerging church movement is their couples' therapy.

Reverend Hank Peirce fits the description of this movement. He grew up on punk rock and new wave and attended what he calls a "super liberal" Unitarian Universalist church (to which he still belongs) throughout his childhood. He spent his adolescence drinking underage. He spent his 20s working as a poorly paid roadie. "I consider myself an anomaly in the world of punk rock-religious folk," he says. "I'm part of the same religion that I grew up with. The religious values that I grew up on are still my religious values."

Years ago, though, Peirce did make a conscious decision to rededicate himself to the church. He was working as a roadie for a friend's band that wound up opening for Metallica. His own band was still in fledgling mode and he wasn't making much money, but he was as content as a broke young punk could be. That is, until he noticed something unsettling about the Metallica roadies— that they were older, joyless, future versions of himself— and felt a canyon of existential angst that he says had to be filled by religion.

"I wanted to be with other people, but I wanted to help other people make meaning," he remembers. Today, he is a straightedge priest living just outside of Boston with a graying Morrissey haircut and a reputation for outspoken, lyric-laden sermons. "For me, when I've had these conflicts between religion and punk rock, it just comes back to who I am."

On his Facebook page, Peirce writes of the difficulty that can arise when reconciling his dual devotions: "I have to talk about punk's anti-religious bent," he says. "It comes from the inherent anti-authoritarian part of our movement ... but mostly it is the idea of not wanting anyone to tell us what to believe." Christianity does, of course, tell people what to believe. But it would be disingenuous to claim punk doesn't do the same. The counterculture may have begun as a grimy free-for-all of glorified rebellion and uninhibited liberation, but it, too has drawn up its own strict set of rules and norms.

At a coffee shop in Toronto's east end, I meet Liz Worth, author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in TO and Beyond. As something of a punk-rock scholar, she gives the scene an equitable shake. "Punk is very tribal," she says. She points out that going to Sneaky Dee's, a beloved Toronto dive-bar, every Friday night becomes just as much a community-oriented tradition as going to church every Sunday morning or afternoon. "It's important to keep in mind that punk rock started in a time where people really believed that there was no future. People were genuinely afraid that the world was going to be over, that there were going to be nuclear bombs and that would be the end."

So the first generation of punks lived as though tomorrow would never arrive. Concert experiences were unpredictable; parties were wild; fashion was impulsive. "You don't see a lot of punks doing that stuff anymore," says Worth. "People don't wear garbage bags to punk shows these days, and if they did, I think a lot of people would react to it. That person would be back outside of the norm." If religion has lost much of its authority, punk has lost its sense of anarchy. "It's a strange popularity contest," Worth continues. "Punk and religion are such personal things. People should be allowed to process them and express them and feel them out whenever they want to, and on their own terms. But we don't let that happen."

Worth's observation gets to the core of what makes a church like Revolution so unique. It is a place where religious questioning is encouraged and even shared by the pastors who in any other context would be defrocked of their ministry status. It is also a place where the doubters and the bad kids can express devotion without being ostracized. To those for whom punk is a religion and a way of life, Christianity is the counterculture.

***

It is Father's Day at Revolution. Reverend Anderson is speaking, and he begins with a personal disclaimer. "Father's Day has become kind of a weird holiday for me," he tells the congregation. (When Anderson's father was alive, their relationship was tenuous.) Anderson last delivered a Revolution sermon on Mother's Day. He does not have a strained relationship with his mother, but quotes the same Bible passage today. He reads Mark 3:24 and 3:25: "If a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand." And so begins a sermon about community, with a biblical passage that could just as easily be a punk lyric about unity. "It is very, very hard to be authentic and to live an authentic life," says Anderson. "We demonize what we don't understand. Sin is so much deeper than objects or behaviors."

Anderson distributes pencils and slips of paper around the room. Congregants are to write one authentic thing about themselves on one side and one inauthentic trait about themselves on the other. The slips of paper are then folded and exchanged. Just as it seems Anderson might be orchestrating a group confessional (which would be a certifiably un-punk thing to do), he tells the congregation not to read the slips they received. Instead, they are to lay them down on the modest stage where he sits on his barstool, illuminated by that arc of round, struggling light bulbs. He tucks them into his Bible and says he'll put them away somewhere. Maybe he'll bury them, or maybe he'll put them in a closet.

"Sometimes we won't know what to do with each other's sins," he says. "We'll just hold them. The thing about rituals is that they're all made up as we go along. I can't imagine that Jesus thought about communion before he gave it." The aim of the exercise, he makes clear, was not to punish or shame people for their hubris or their lustfulness or their greed, but to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, those things exist inside us all. "This is the beginning of our journey together as a community of confession," says Anderson, "a community of authenticity."

After a short prayer, church for the week is over. The congregation of misfits— some of them devoted, some of them doubtful— says amen and shuffles back outside.

Presented by

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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