Behind the Bar Stick People

The Complicated Journey from Holy Studies to Hospitality

These bartenders, all alumni of evangelical Christian colleges, found the bar industry to be a better source of community and connection than the church.

Sermon on the Mount in a Bar illustration / Laura Sant

Sarah Morrissey has stories to tell. She can recall how she begged the late Sasha Petraske to let her barback at Milk & Honey for free. She can recount her days sharing a rental with Phil Ward, the pioneering co-founder of New York city’s seminal tequila and mezcal bar Mayahuel. But no story seems to pique interest from listeners quite like when she mentions her days attending noted evangelical Christian college Oral Roberts University.

“Whenever I mention I went to Oral Roberts, people are like, ‘What? Really?’” says Morrissey, who is now the beverage director at Ernesto’s in New York City. “They’re always shocked. Then they’ll ask me to tell them stories. They love the stories—people just love to hear that I was a ‘crazy Christian’ back in the day.”

For many people, it’s deeply incongruous to hear that the bartender who just served you a killer cocktail attended an evangelical Christian college. The drinks industry and the church bodies running the schools are seemingly in opposition: a business of vice versus an institution of virtue. It’s tough to comprehend how someone can even make the implausible leap from one to the other.

It's usually complicated. Pain and disillusionment often are part of the journey. But so is a desire to hold on to the positives such bartenders experienced in their Christian upbringing and evangelical college experience. This desire tends to shape their approach to bartending, as they view the bar as a reimagined version of church: one where fellowship, service, and the core tenets of being good and kind to others are integral aspects of hospitality.

“When you go to a bar, you have everything catered to you,” says Kacie Lambert, who attended Vanguard University and is now the bar manager at Gracias Madre in Newport Beach, California. “We try to make you feel comfortable. You get to know us. You tell us your problems. We listen, support, and try to give you a good experience. Is that not what church is?”

Building a Community

In July, Chelsea Gregoire, who attended Liberty University, will open their latest bar project in Baltimore’s Old Goucher neighborhood, a couple miles north of downtown. They’re naming the bar Church. The name wasn’t chosen to throw shade at their evangelical upbringing or religion in general. Rather, the moniker ties in well with a concept on which they concentrated as they completed their master’s degree in Theological Studies at Liberty. 

“I focused a lot of my ministry work and studies on the idea of ‘church planting’: the concept where you don’t go into an already established church and start preaching,” says Gregoire, who also acts as Church’s hospitality director. “Rather, you take a community-building approach: You build relationships with like-minded people over coffee, over a meal, sometimes drinks, having conversations about faith and supporting one another. Over time, that may transform into a building.”

Gregoire’s vision echoes the days of the early Christian church. “If you are familiar with the New Testament paths of Paul and Peter, churches were less in buildings and more in town squares and homes,” they say. “It is the modern-day manifestation of that.” Diving further into the cultural context of food and drink in Paul’s and Peter’s day, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine their form of church and community-building occurred with a jug or two of wine present—an ancient connection between church and bar.

Water, Wine, and Connection

Jesus’ first recorded miracle in the Bible was turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. This story is as well-known by non-believers as it is ignored by Christian teetotalers, who are convinced that liquor is the devil’s juice. The miracle itself is a lazy way to forge a link between the church and the bar, however, a misdirection that inadvertently obscures the true relationship between the two. Talking about Christ’s ability to produce wine is entertaining, but doing so inaccurately puts the emphasis on the alcohol. 

The true connection requires digging into the context. Putting the miracle aspect aside, wine historically acted as a central element for connection and fun in a variety of social settings—similar to how a Negroni can encourage conversations between strangers on adjacent bar stools. Instead of quoting scripture, it seems more appropriate to quote the late Gaz Regan, who once famously said, “Nobody goes to a bar for a drink.”

In a contemporary context, the connective fiber binding the church and the bar lies in the fulfillment of the basic psychological needs of belonging and acceptance. When the church is promoting the values Christ intended it to promote—loving thy neighbor, not grandstanding in the name of Christian nationalism and insular intolerance—it can satisfy these psychological needs in a way that’s not dissimilar to a friendly watering hole. 

“Church isn’t about the jumbotron and tax-free salaries,” says Morrissey. “It’s about building community and a safe space to feel good. It’s about helping people. And that’s exactly what bars do. We create community.”

The Evangelical College Experience

Evangelical Christian colleges can provide students with a quality education. They also frequently act as remote babysitters for concerned parents. These institutions commonly furnish a collection of extra restrictions on things that can perceptively lead young churchgoers astray. Prohibiting alcohol of any kind, even when the student is of legal drinking age, is a big mandate, ranking up there with strict limits on coed co-mingling in dorms and forced attendance to on-campus chapel or religious convocation sessions. Policies designed to squelch LGBTQ+ openness are common. Some schools require students to sign contracts agreeing to these extra rules; violating them could result in severe punishments. 

“I was in a relationship that I could never openly talk about because of constant fear of the school’s code of conduct,” says Gregoire. “Punishment included things like fines and even expulsion. It was very ‘Big Brother.’”

“We couldn’t listen to secular music or go to secular movies. We also had to dress a certain way,” says Morrisey. “The campus was super-cliquey, too. If you were brought up Christian but non-evangelical, like I was, you were treated differently.”

This restrictive, and often insular, take on the college experience can sometimes be a breaking point for students. In Morrisey’s case, she lost her faith and moved back home to New Jersey over Christmas break her junior year, never to return. 

Skepticism of the church’s intentions can also drive disillusionment during this crucial transition into adulthood. “I attended the Louisiana Baptist convention when I was in college because it was being held on our campus,” says Danny Winter, who attended Louisiana Christian University, née Louisiana College, and was the owner of the now-shuttered Brennan’s Irish Pub in Birmingham, Alabama. “I heard nothing about God, church, or community. It was all about money, policy, and rules. There was zero spirituality—the endgame was money. Seeing that firsthand really bothered me.”

These experiences shine flickers of light onto what could drive a person from being on campus to being behind the stick, but doesn’t provide the full beacon. While the motivation for approaching the bar industry can be quite traditional—generally, a job was needed and hospitality paid the bills—the bar scene often proved a sanctuary.

Rejection, Redemption, and Reflection

When the church functions as it should, it can be a force for good. The faith’s core teachings of love for all and helping others in need can still function as a healing balm. “The church’s influence and watching the good that my parents did within the church put a moral compass in me that softened my impulses,” says Gareth Moore, who attended Point Loma Nazarene and is currently the managing partner at True Proof in San Diego, California, having previously bartended at San Diego venues Seven Grand and Born & Raised. “Without it, I’d probably be in jail for murder or a violent crime of some sort.” 

However, when the church fails, it fails hard, particularly when Christ’s message of love gets buried by people preferring to intensely focus on fear or consequences. “I lived life walking on eggshells,” says Lambert, whose father was a Baptist preacher. “As a kid, I would spend my lunches alone praying to God that I wouldn’t be sent to hell. It’s a terrifying way to live, and totally unfair to a young girl.”

These consequences can manifest in tangible ways, particularly when former adherents leave the church. It’s not uncommon for Christian friends to quickly sever ties with those deciding to walk away, depleting their support network. “Every single Christian friend I had dropped me the moment I left the church,” says Morrissey. “This hurt especially hard because I had other friends drop me in high school when they found out I was going to Oral Roberts. When my Christian friends dropped me, I had no one.” 

While they’re dealing with this loss, a similar one often happens simultaneously. Renouncing practices and customs of the church they’d previously considered sacrosanct can leave an emotional void. “The day that I figured out I didn’t believe anymore made me sad,” says Morrissey. “It makes you feel like you lost a good friend.” 

Getting behind the stick provided all of these bartenders with solace after hitting this nadir, each said. Many attribute this to the bar community offering them unconditional support and acceptance in a way that they hadn’t experienced within strict evangelical settings. Other aspects of bar life—the ritual of making drinks, the hospitality, observing the fellowship among people that would have nothing to do with each other in other circumstances—fill the liturgical gaps left behind. Over time, the bar becomes their church, a place where needs are met, souls become satiated, and inner reflection about their past becomes outward expressions of service and kindness. 

This isn’t to say that the bar industry is flawless. While acceptance and community-building are major reasons why these evangelical college alumni found religion in making drinks, they acknowledge that some industry behaviors mirror the hypocrisy, fakeness, and cliquish exclusion they witnessed growing up. These are issues that also carry potential consequence: Get on the wrong side of the wrong person or group, and reputation-damaging rumors can spread faster than lightning. At its worst, this can lead to industry excommunication, dredging up feelings not unlike what these bartenders experienced after leaving the church. 

“Many people leave the church heartbroken. When you get 86ed by the industry, you suffer the same heartbreak,” says Lambert. “In both places, you can feel you have nowhere to go. In the industry, this feeling could lead to suicide or just drinking yourself to death.”

While it’s certainly a possible outcome in the hospitality industry, it’s uncommon. The industry is notable for its inclusivity: It loves its own regardless of where they came from and where they may stand in their station in life. For bartenders who left the church, this generally is where the bar community eclipses the evangelical one. “I feel bad for saying this, but the church can learn integrity and loyalty from the bar,” says Winter. “If you need help, a bartender will almost always heed the call.”

Shared Philosophies

Not all bartenders who attended evangelical Christian colleges stepped away from the church. However, those who remained were less inclined to turn the church’s theology into a judgmental weapon. “I’m a Christian, but I’m not the kind of Christian that you may think I am,” says Moore. “My version of church is much more casual. I’m more concerned about you as a person than I am about the rules.” Some bartenders suspect people like Moore aren’t as uncommon as one might assume, for reasons that are both logical and damning. “I think there are quite a few secret closeted Christians in the industry,” says Morrissey. “Some might be scared to share because they don’t want to be branded as ‘that weirdo that hates gays’ or something like that.”

For the bartenders who did walk away, their rejection of the church doesn’t necessarily coincide with a rejection of Christianity’s principles as espoused by Jesus. “There’s great wisdom in the Bible,” says Morrissey. “Jesus was a pretty awesome dude.” Rather, theirs is a renouncement of the institution itself—specifically, the people who have corrupted and warped Jesus’ message of love for all to fit their own agenda of hatred, intolerance, over-the-top legalism, and a politically charged preoccupation with wrapping the Bible in an American flag. “Western Christianity has a severe problem with historical context and with the interpretation of the text,” says Gregoire. “That’s what makes me angry. However, this is what Christians would call a ‘righteous anger.’ The God I studied—the God I know—would relish the opportunity to meet with others in a bar.”

This idea of God holding court in a pub points to the common ground that exists ideologically between the bar and the church. Setting aside the drinks and the dogma, both places are designed to intentionally build strong communities—which is achievable only by taking a holistic approach, truly loving thy neighbor by showing compassion and exhibiting kindness and support to all in need of such benevolence. When this happens, it does more than establish a link between two seemingly disparate entities. It also allows both to be an example of how we should live our lives—whether or not they involve serving God or serving drinks.

Rich Manning graduated from Concordia University in Irvine, California, a Lutheran institution that, while not evangelical, is governed by religious tenets and features a dry campus. He enjoys discussing theology over bourbon in his pastor’s backyard.