They are holding church services at the Flora-Bama Lounge, Package and Oyster Bar, a place where the exclamation “Oh, My God” is not usually said in prayer.
Actually, they have been preaching and studying the Bible there since July 2011, but it has taken this long for the Associated Press to find out and do a story. But now the AP has, and folks have asked me what I think about it, considering my affection for the place.
Well, it certainly adds another twist to the slogan, “Let’s Do It On The Line.”
Now, I find it significant that “Worship at the Water” — the name the operation goes by — is an outreach effort by the Perdido Bay United Methodist Church.
“Just like those Methodists,” I can almost hear some of my friends from churches where “thou shall not” prefixes many of the things folks like me like to do. What else could you expect, they say, from a denomination that is fuzzy on things like “regeneration” and “once saved, always saved”?
True, “we give you credit for a good try” has been heralded as the central tenant of Wesleyan theology. On the other hand, being a Methodist myself, I find services at the Flora-Bama right in keeping with the way the founder of our faith, John Wesley, approached this whole evangelical thing. Declaring that “the world is my parish,” he went outside the walls of the church and took to preaching to crowds that gathered in fields. Come one, come all, come as you are was his approach.
That fits the Flora-Bama persona pretty well, for the bar has long been noted for attracting everyone from bikers to bankers. Once you put on shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops, what you were out in the “real world” doesn’t matter much anymore.
Worship at the Water still does a few things that are more Methodist than Flora-Bama, like serving grape juice at communion instead of wine. And though Perdido Bay UMC has baptized a few out back in the Gulf, I would be surprised if Methodism’s symbolic sprinkling was replaced by the full-body dunking that our Baptist brethren favor.
All of this may be part of the changes the Flora-Bama has gone through recently. According to my local sources, a new partner, with upscale tastes and the money to indulge them, has joined the Flora-Bama team. The results have been renovations that swept away the post-Hurricane Ivan repairs that made “The Bama” look like it was built by Boy Scouts who were handy with hammers and tents and replaced them with polished wood and fancy fittings.
Or so I am told.
I have not been in the new “Bama,” but I did drive by a few weeks ago and the exterior suggests that what is inside is at least a tad more Riviera and a little less redneck.
However, a friend who has been through the doors assures me that “The Bama” has not changed that much. The old bras that once hung from the ceiling (which were getting pretty ratty) have been replaced by new ones apparently thrown by women who are not as buxom as those who began the tradition years ago. “They seem smaller,” my friend said. Nevertheless, the general feeling is that after a puke-in-the-corner or two and a couple of bar fights, everything will look pretty much the same as it was.
Even on Sunday.
Remember, despite its reputation for redneckery, the Gulf Coast has long been the playground for faithful folks from the Bible Belt. Down there, just like back home, when they sow wild oats on Saturday night, they often feel the need to go to church the next day and pray for a crop failure. Services at the Flora-Bama give the sinners an opportunity to seek redemption at the very place they fell from grace.
Makes perfect sense to me.
I only wonder why it has taken this long for a church to see the need and fill it.
My friend Margaret, whose family were Orange Beach pioneers and who still lives on Cotton Bayou, tells how her father and some of his friends once owned Ono Island. When they sold it in 1968, her daddy kept one lot, a parcel just across the water from the Flora-Bama. From there he teased his wife’s Baptist friends, as he could watch them as they patronized the beach bar and liquor store.
How convenient it would have been if those patrons could have dropped by the bar, picked up a Bloody Mary or bushwhacker, settled in to hear a sermon on redemption and hope, and after putting a few bucks in the “neon tackle boxes” where the offering is collected — Methodists always pass the plate — returned to the world the better for it.
Next time I am there on a Sunday, I may just attend.
Chances are I will need to.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.