by Gannon Sims
It happened in an unlikely place.
It was Friday night. Pastor Abiel Hernandez was out to dinner with his wife Lynn. They arrived at the restaurant, were greeted at the hostess stand and were given one of those little pagers that have become standard operating procedure at restaurants on a Friday night.
As Pastor Abiel took a seat in the waiting area he noticed the crowd of young people at the bar. Then it dawned on him. Or as Lynn puts it “The Holy Spirit fell upon him.” Abiel said “We need a spiritual bartender.”
Abiel serves as an Associate Pastor at Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene just outside of York, Pennsylvania. It’s one of the largest Nazarene congregations on the East Coast. And they’ve got all the trappings of a large suburban evangelical church.
This is a blessing, of course. But it’s also a curse. While Stillmeadow does a tremendous job of reaching its suburban demographic, just ten minutes away, there were neighborhoods the church was never going to reach.
So after a great deal of prayer, planning and fundraising, Stillmeadow launched the York City Campus. It’s a multipurpose space in a gritty part of town bordered by row houses on one side and an elementary school and abandoned prison on the other. The space is outfitted with a kitchen, a coffee bar and a basketball gym that doubles as a worship space. In a matter of months, Pastor Abiel was holding Sunday services in English and Spanish. The church played host to a basketball league for the elementary-aged kids. Everything was going as planned. But Pastor Abiel noticed an inner-city demographic that the church still wasn’t reaching. So they launched Celebrate Recovery, a ministry for recovering addicts. The course was an immediate success; people were attending the course who never attended church.
But there was a problem. Once the addicts were in recovery, there was nowhere for them to go on the weekend. There was no safe place for them to socialize.
They needed a spiritual bartender.
Pastor Abiel mentioned his idea to the Senior Pastor of Stillmeadow. The irony of a Nazarene Church with a bartender was not lost on him, but he loved the idea.
The pastor recommended that Abiel meet with Jennifer Collins, who in addition to her passion for making connections with young adults, also had past experience in the club scene. Abiel had already set an appointment with her to discuss another matter. The Spirit was on the move.
In December 2011, Club 350east was born. On Friday nights, Stillmeadow’s York City Campus becomes the only substance-free night spot in town. The club’s pulsing music and lights are a testament to Abiel’s dream as much as it is a testament to the seemingly endless supply of up-and-coming deejays ready to take a turn at the turntable.
And there’s always a crowd at the bar where Jennifer, the spiritual bartender, doles out non-alcoholic drinks and offers advice and prayer support for the issues facing people in recovery and everyone else looking for a sober alternative to the typical club scene.
Gannon is the Director of Ministry Formation for Fresh Expressions US and leads the Fresh Expressions efforts of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. He earned the Bachelor of Arts Degree from Baylor University and the Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. Prior to entering seminary, Gannon worked as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate and as a public affairs officer in the anti-human trafficking office at the U.S. State Department. He enjoys forging partnerships between followers of Jesus from different traditions and has served in various roles at several churches, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican. Gannon is married to Carey, who also is a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Together they work to bring fresh expressions of church to the collegiate community at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.