WEAVER — Few places in Alabama offer more contrast in opinions on alcohol than the bar and the church.
On a recent Sunday morning, the small congregation of about 100 at West Weaver Baptist Church, most of whom don’t need to open their hymnals to sing along with every word at Sunday service, gathered to hear pastor Donnie Sills deliver a sermon on two choices: To accept and live by the word of God, or to live for oneself.
And while the message isn’t specifically about alcohol, or the decision made by the Weaver City Council earlier this year to sell it on Sundays, Sills makes it clear after his service on where he stands on the choice of drinking over church on Sunday.
“It’s a big problem, and it’s not a one-day issue,” Sills said, citing numbers from the World Health Organization that said 2.5 million people die every year due to alcohol. “Those deaths are terrible, horrible, abysmal and avoidable.”
But across town on that same Sunday at Heroes American Bar and Grille, Jacksonville resident Blake Flood, 27, isn’t interested in what the worshippers in the pews think about his bar patronage. Wearing a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt and sipping beer from a pint glass, Flood said he’s surprised that Weaver, a city of about 3,000 souls, beat Oxford and Jacksonville to the punch of serving liquor on Sundays.
Part 1 - Good Book vs. Good Time | Part 2 - Alabama's Last Dry Soil
Part 3 - A County Cashes In | Part 4 - Shift to Sunday Sales
“People couldn’t believe they couldn’t buy a beer on Sunday,” said Flood, keeping an eye on the TV screen and his Cowboys while talking about his time waiting tables in restaurants in Oxford.
In this day and age, Sunday alcohol sales, Flood said, isn’t about morality. It’s about dollars and cents.
Flood predicted it won’t be long before other Calhoun County cities follow Weaver’s and Anniston’s lead.
“I can’t believe it hasn’t happened already,” Flood said. “They’re just losing money.”
The echoes of Prohibition in the United States have lasted the longest in the South, where a religious, conservative atmosphere and tendency toward temperance has often kept alcohol on the fringes of society. But in recent years, strict laws regulating alcohol in Alabama have loosened considerably. Less than five years ago it was illegal for hobbyists to brew their own beer in the state and for retailers to serve beer that is more than 6 percent alcohol by volume. But between 2011 and 2012, Alabama was the fastest-growing state in the country for craft brewery production, according to the Brewers Association. More cities and counties, once dry on Sunday, are choosing to make alcohol sales a seven-day enterprise.
“One reason a lot of cities support it is because alcohol is recession-proof,” said Nancy King Dennis, a public affairs specialist with the Alabama Retail Association. “Studies have kind of shown that even in the recession, people were still buying alcohol.”
Dennis said the association doesn’t have a position on Sunday alcohol sales or cities and counties going wet, but supports elected leaders who advocate for alcohol sales in their communities.
“In general, when you have legal alcohol sales, you increase traffic,” Dennis said. “A lot of cities have done it to boost tourism and convince businesses to come to the city.”
That’s why Anniston and Weaver became the first two cities in Calhoun County to begin selling alcohol on Sundays in May, after legislation passed giving the respective city councils the power to make Sunday sales legal. The “Ecotourism Beverage Bill,” was pushed by Anniston’s City Council as part of a larger effort to attract outdoor enthusiasts to the city, have them stick in town through Sunday and dine at city restaurants.
But as much as things change in Alabama, Prohibition-minded interests are still powerful in state politics. Del Marsh, the state senator from Anniston who sponsored the legislation granting Weaver and Anniston the power to allow Sunday sales, said even though he met little local resistance to the bill, the law climbed a huge hurdle in Montgomery, barely passing the House on the last day of the 2103 legislative session.
“There’s still a lot of lobbying power in Montgomery that’s clearly set against alcohol sales,” Marsh said. “But I think that people are more open-minded, and I also think people are a lot more responsible with how they handle alcohol.”
Limited police data in Anniston and Weaver might back that up. Anniston police Capt. Allen George said while the Police Department hasn’t been specifically monitoring alcohol-related crimes, there’s been no noticeable spike in driving under the influence or underage consumption in Anniston since the law went into effect.
“We haven’t seen anything, no,” George said. “It’s pretty much business as usual.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alabama has one of the lowest rates among states in binge drinking and heavy drinking. According to numbers collected in 2010, about 10 percent of the state’s population said they binge drink. Binge drinking, for the purposes of the study, is defined as a man consuming five or more drinks on one occasion, or a woman consuming four or more drinks on an occasion. Only Mississippi, Utah, West Virginia and Arkansas reported lower rates. Alabama also ranked low when measuring how much binge drinkers consumed during any occasion, with an average high of fewer than seven drinks.
Marsh made sure to point out that the legislation for Anniston and Weaver didn’t give the Legislature the power to allow Sunday sales, but allowed local officials to make decisions for their community.
“I haven’t heard any negative news about it,” Marsh said. “I’ve heard mostly positive things from the restaurants who’ve seen a lot of business because of it.”
In a place like Weaver, with three businesses — a liquor store, a restaurant and a gas station — that sell alcohol, adding one day per week of legal sales isn’t exactly pouring money into the city. Weaver Mayor Wayne Willis said the change six months ago had no effect on the city’s budgeting for the new fiscal year, but he hopes the law will help Weaver attract new restaurants, especially along Alabama 21, the main route to larger Jacksonville.
But most importantly, Willis said, there was no economic reason not to bring seven-day alcohol sales to Weaver.
“I haven’t heard a single complaint since it happened,” Willis said. “I think people knew it happened, saw the sky wasn’t falling, and accepted it.”
‘Every sale … a loss of life’
Acceptance of a culture of alcohol is exactly the problem though, according to Sid Nichols, director of missions for the Calhoun County Baptist Association.
“It’s presented as something you need to be successful or cool,” Nichols said. “You can’t watch a ball game without drinking. You can’t have a Christmas party without alcohol. They never show the other side of it. The mother and daughter crying because dad got hit by a drunk driver, or crying babies going hungry because dad is an alcoholic and can’t feed them.”
If local leaders don’t think there’s much of a fuss over alcohol sales in the county, Nichols said, it’s because they aren’t listening. While the association encourages members in its churches — nearly 90 in Calhoun County — to vote against measures like Sunday sales, it didn’t have a direct effect in Anniston or Weaver. The city councils decided the issue, rather than a public referendum.
“Del Marsh found a loophole,” Nichols said. “It doesn’t matter what we think.”
According to historic Gallup polls conducted since 1939, on average, 70 percent of Americans say they drink, at least occasionally, every year. But those numbers dwindle considerably for those who say they attend church weekly, with more than 50 percent of regular church-goers saying they abstained from alcohol completely in a 2011 poll. Protestants, including Baptists and Seventh-Day Adventists, were the biggest abstainers, according to the poll.
For pastor Rick Reaves at Hill Crest Baptist Church in Saks — with more than 3,000 members, making it among the largest in the county — it’s more than just a personal choice not to drink, and any economic incentive that might come from alcohol is negated by its negative effects on society, he said.
“It’s not going to help the economy in any way,” Reaves said, citing alcohol abuse as a contributing factor to crime, the loss of families, and even death. “Every sale of a can of beer is a loss of life.”
Reaves’ church was one of the most active in combating Anniston’s recent law change, organizing protests near downtown Anniston. He said if the county or any other city in the area wanted to pass similar measures, the church would be the first on the front lines again, asking leaders to say no to alcohol sales.
But at West Weaver Baptist, with a much smaller congregation than Hill Crest’s, Sills said the approach to alcohol-related problems is different; it has to be considering the church’s size. While the church doesn’t support Weaver going wet on the Lord’s day, Sills said the best way to protect the community is to spread its message, individual by individual.
One member who’s heard the message is Chuck Pearl, a recovering alcoholic who spent time in jail before joining West Weaver Baptist.
“My drinking was more important to me than my church,” said Pearl, in his 50s, who said he has been sober for eight years after spending most of his life as a “professional drinker.”
Pearl, who also was addicted to methamphetamine, said he tried for years to find different ways to kick his habits before turning to God to cure his addictions.
“Nothing else fit the void I was looking for,” Pearl said.
For Mark LaRoux, the youth minister at West Weaver, listening to those who need that void filled is the most effective way to find out what’s in a man’s heart. LaRoux is used to spending time with people easily tempted by vices. A former professional wrestler better known to fans of World Championship Wrestling as Lash LaRoux the Ragin’ Cajun, LaRoux said he spent a good portion of his life living a rock-star lifestyle complete with constant touring, adoring fans and all the temptations available for him to indulge in.
Judgment, he said, is an easy way to turn someone from a message they need to hear.
“It’s not important to me if someone drinks,” LaRoux said. “What matters is what’s in someone’s heart. You find that out by opening up to them.”
Opening hearts to the message of the gospel, Sills said, is the most important way Christians can get to the root of society’s problems.
“We’re busy fulfilling the words of the gospel here in the community in Weaver,” Sills said. “That is, making disciples of the teachings of Jesus. If we can do that, those other problems will take care of themselves.”
Staff Writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.