Bar Chaplain Goes to City Hall

by susan on November 7, 2016

This post originated on Rev. Tom Lewis’ blog, Bar Chaplain.  I encourage you to follow him there. I wanted to share it here (with Tom’s permission) for those interested in learning more about this ongoing conversation in our neighborhood & city. As often is the case, there’s more to this particular issue than what lies on the surface. If we are to be agents of healing, we must think & feel deeply, as uncomfortable as we may become in the process.


source: Comedy Central

In the premiere of their 7th season, South Park featured an amazing scene that still sits in my mind’s eye more than a decade later. In the midst of the Iraq War, the boys learn that they can get out of class if they go to a protest, but they have no idea what they’re protesting. As they stand there holding signs, a reporter asks them for their viewpoint, and they’re dumbfounded. They simply read off their signs but have to admit that they really have no clue why they’re there. This is sort of how I feel when weighing in on political issues. No matter how much research I’ve done, no matter how much data I can cite, no matter how familiar I am with an issue, I always feel like I’m walking in somewhat oblivious, and that’s exactly what happened on September 27th at City Hall.

A new local microbrewery (Main and Six Brewing) had applied for a waiver so that they could set up shop in the Springfield neighborhood just north of Downtown. The revitalization of the square mile of Springfield has been an ongoing conversation in Jacksonville for decades. Littered with historic homes and a financially struggling Main Street, Springfield has been in the throes of a slow, tense gentrification for quite some time. As St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and countless other communities have shown, craft breweries have a proven track record of breathing life into commercial areas. They’re also great environments for ministry (as I’ll argue many times in this blog), so this new brewery seemed like a no-brainer at first glance. Still, I learned from Rev. Susan Rogers, pastor of The Well at Springfield, that a few Jacksonville clergy were opposing the brewery. Seeing this brewery as an opportunity for more community space in which we could gather and minister, Susan and I decided to enter the fray on the brewery’s behalf, which meant speaking before the Land Use Zoning Committee on the 27th.


I want to emphasize that I was entering this conversation as something of an outsider. My familiarity with Springfield comes from spending time at my brother’s house and from listening in on conversations among my friends who already live there, so I never claimed to be a resident. Instead, I treated my words before the LUZ committee as more of an expert testimony of someone well versed in both Christianity and alcohol. My surface agenda was to help get this new brewery up and running, but I’ll admit to a covert agenda as well: showing some beer lovers that not all Christians are like the minister from Footloose. Jacksonville has a law on the books prohibiting the sale of alcohol within certain proximity to churches, and Main and Six was within the range of several. The testimony of beer-loving Christianswould benefit the owner, and I hoped it might offer encouragement to the community as well. I really thought I was going into this meeting to talk about alcohol and Jesus, but I soon discovered that there were many more issues at play.

Jessi and I arrived as the meeting was starting and took our seats on the left side of the council chamber with Dennis Espinosa (the owner of Main and Six) and Zach Miller (his lawyer). We were soon joined by Susan and our friend Cody Burton, who is himself a bartender and one of the coordinators of Beer & Hymns at Silver Cow in Riverside. It was at about this point that we looked around the room and came to an uncomfortable realization:

Almost all of the brewery supporters sitting on the left side were white.
Almost all of the brewery opponents sitting on the right side were black.
CRAP! I screamed inside my head, What if this is about more than beer?!

vacant-lotFor almost three hours, we listened as community members spoke for or against the brewery. Seeing that this was about more than beer, many speakers felt compelled to include the words “and I am a Christian” in their arguments regardless of their stances. It was fascinating to listen to these perspectives and the subtext underneath: What do we want Springfield to be?Finally, the conversation drew to a close, the vote was taken, and the brewery got its waiver.

Now that the meeting is behind us, I look forward to partnering with Dennis in the space, but thinking back to that divided room, I can’t help but wonder what the ramifications of  this debate will be. I’m not talking about the moral degradation that the opposition claimed the brewery would cause (which, for the record, it won’t); I’m talking about churches, especially black churches, being excluded from the conversation and maybe even excluded from their neighborhood. What seemed like a simple alcohol issue prior to the meeting had turned out to be a much larger church issue— maybe even a justice issue.

After the meeting, I connected with one of the ministers who spoke against the brewery, and he expressed his concern that local organizers could be developing a pattern of not consulting religious institutions or only including ministers they thought would agree with them (i.e. me and Susan). This minister pointed out previous unsuccessful attempts of Main Street businesses and questioned whether we were just turning the neighborhood into another entertainment district like Riverside. Though we disagreed on several points (especially over the nature of craft breweries and how they affect crime rates), it was good to hear this minister’s perspective, and I regret that it took a trip to City Hall before I could even meet him, let alone listen to him.

main-streetI was also troubled by the way news organizations portrayed the showdown at City Hall, treating it as a clash between secular beer culture and outdated religious practice. One reporter commenting on a follow-up meeting titled his article “Beer drinkers down Bible thumpers in Jacksonville microbrewery debate.” This is a horrendous oversimplification, particularly since the brewery owners have been nothing but receptive to Susan’s and my perspective, and there are outspoken Christians on both sides. Of course, there is an unfortunate grain of truth there too. Susan has been tracking the social media fallout and has seen an outcry against churches in the comment sections. It seems that this debate has brought out a lot of anger and old wounds among Springfield residents who already felt alienated by church. So let’s recap:

Several local churches feel like they’ve been excluded from the conversation.
Residents who already felt judged and excluded by church now feel even more so.
There may be racial and socio-economic subtext to the debate.
And none of us are completely sure how (or if it’s even possible) to get everyone talking to each other.
main_and_six_brewingWe thought this was just about beer, but as always, the truth resists simplicity. There may not be one right side on this issue, but rather shades of truth in all perspectives that will have all sorts of positive and negative consequences.

I don’t really know yet what my role will be in all this, and frankly, I’d love to just slip away from the whole thing, but if there’s a way I can help in the conversation—even if it’s just giving some clergy one another’s phone numbers—I will. Susan and some others are planning to host conversations to air some of the concerns and hopefully alleviate some of the anger. There’s no simple answer to any of this, but if we’re all willing to listen and work toward consensus, there just might be a chance.

If you’re reading this in Jacksonville, please consider being a part of this conversation. Every voice needs to be heard.
If you’re reading this elsewhere in the United States, know that there are neighborhoods in your city asking these same questions. I hope our story is helpful to you.

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