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‘Pub church’ offers spirituality, community and beer

It’s a Sunday afternoon at the Opal Divine’s in South Austin, and the Rev. Steve Kinney is about to convene a meeting of spiritually minded souls in what Carrie Nation would have called a den of iniquity.

Kinney, an Episcopal priest at All Saints in Central Austin, has held monthly meetings — typically the third Sunday of each month — of what some followers informally call “pub church” at Opal Divine’s. There’s music but not from an organ and a choir. Bread and wine are offered, but it’s not a Eucharist in the formal sense. There’s no kneeling, but there’s food and beer and cocktails for those inclined to partake of spirits to get into the spirit of things.

Opal Divine’s owner Michael Parker has offered a side room at the Penn Field location of his restaurant and bar to Kinney and participants gratis since January and these sorts of gatherings — explorations of craft beer, spirituality, ideas and community where all are welcome — are popping up in numerous cities around the country. It’s attracted a fair bit of media attention, including Austin’s National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett, who is friends with Kinney through church and enjoys a pint of craft beer now and then. Kinney is the celebrant. Burnett interviews a notable local at each gathering. Dave Madden curates the music.

Kinney calls it “Parable, a re-imagining of worship.” (The next gathering July 20 will feature Texas Tribune Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith. Past guests have included Ray Benson. Turk Pipkin will be the August guest.) It’s part of several discussion groups Kinney directs called the Front Porch.

“The heart of the Front Porch is trying to communicate the idea that our differences really do enrich when there’s openness and hospitality and engagement, which I call communion,” Kinney said. “And when that happens, that’s special.”

Usually about 50 to 70 people show up at Parable.

“We’re still trying to crack the code and not have it just be an All Saints’ evening service,” Kinney said. “It’s a crowd-pleaser. You come at 5:30 and have a cold beer and really good music and you order dinner. There’s a lot of similarities between the Eucharist and a good bartender.”

The band plays a Bob Dylan song as folks settle in.

“We are here to create a space for listening,” Kinney says, before encouraging a moment of silence and breathing “the holy spirit of Pentecost.”

The guest on this Sunday in June is state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who says he was raised in the Church of Christ and now attends First Baptist in Austin. “My mother would be disappointed at how often, but yes, I do,” he said with a confessional smile.

It’s a friendly and thoughtful exchange, but when Burnett essentially asks Watson about his view of how some on the political right exploit their religion for gain in the arena and asks Watson to comment, a whoosh sweeps the room.

“I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve,” Watson says. “On the right, it almost reaches the point, in my view, of blasphemy. There’s more use of that, in my view, than there should be.”

Then it’s on to perhaps the one local subject upon which everyone in the room can agree.

“Traffic is never gonna be fixed,” Watson says. “I’m in a church. I ain’t gonna lie to you.”

Bread and wine are offered. The band plays “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” People start to leave.

Chris Parson, a civil attorney, says he attends to keep his mind open.

“I go to a men’s Bible study with Steve,” Parson said. “It seemed like something different. We get rigid in our faiths. Or it seems rigid to us, anyway.”

Earlier, Kinney allowed that organizers are sort of making this up as they go, but he’s committed to the idea, even if “it will potentially scandalize a couple groups of folks.”

“Hey, everybody, can we hang out, drink another beer?” he asks the crowd. “God bless you. Thanks for comin’ out. Go in peace.”

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