‘Bar church’ ministers to any and all comers

By Hillary Gavan
Published: Monday, October 19, 2009 12:02 PM CDT
JANESVILLE — “I’ve closed a bar down, but never opened one up,” joked Darin Wilson.

Where can one hold a Bible in one hand and nurse a beer in the other? It’s at The Red Door, a ministry held at the Willowdale Saloon, 5905 W. Highway 11, Janesville, led by Beloiter Kathy Price.

In an effort to minister to those turned off by traditional religion, Price holds services at the bar at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday. A social beer and cigarette is allowed as well as chicken wings, coffee and donuts.

“I want the people who don’t want to go to church, those who are wounded and broken, especially from religion,” Price said.

On Sunday, about a dozen people gathered around a few tables. One woman sipped a beer and a bloody Mary, a few people lit up cigarettes and the others munched on coffee cake. Price stuck with an iced tea, but said she didn’t have a problem with a couple of cocktails amongst the congregation. After all, she said some people will go to church with a hangover or have a beer afterwards.

“I want to reach out to the person who believes a beer separates them from God,” Price said.

Price, the daughter of Overflowing Cup pastor the Rev. Dave Fogderud, has been holding services on and off at the bar for a few years. Although some have attacked her for allowing visitors to drink beer, Price joked that putting down a beer is easier than forgiving somebody or letting go of anger.

“Jesus said what comes out of the heart is more defiling than what goes into the mouth,” Price said.

She added that certain sins, like drinking beer or smoking cigarettes, are focused on more than sins of the heart such as greed or self-righteousness.

Price, who grew up in her father’s street ministry and coffee house, said she watched her dad minister to the homeless and the lost, joking that the “apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” A few years ago, Price said she became obsessed with the Catholic Saint Katherine of Sienna, a 14th Century figure known for preaching in pubs, and felt moved by the Holy Spirit do to the same thing.

After she visited the Willowbrook Saloon one night to do karaoke, Willowdale owner Art Conner offered up the bar free of charge. Since starting up the services, Price has gotten a warm response.

“There aren’t phonies or hypocrites,” said Dick Ziltner of Hanover, Wis. “No one’s begging for money.”

Ziltner, a recovering alcoholic, drinks pop during the gatherings and is teased by others for being “the resident Billy Bob Thornton” of the group. For Ziltner, he’s finally found a group that loves and accepts him and his struggles. Over the years Ziltner’s had bad experiences at other churches. From ministers asking for money to getting beat up on his bike ride home from church in third grade, Ziltner’s been worn down by traditional religion, and Price said he’s not alone.

“A hurtful church experience seems to stick with you. Religion has always had a damaging effect on people throughout history,” Price said.

Beloiter Doug Goessel said he grew up Catholic and always believed in God, but felt he was never good enough, couldn’t follow all the rules and didn’t really understand the Bible. Goessel, who smoked a cigarette during the service, said he still struggles with his demons and doesn’t always share the same views with the others, but likes how the group isn’t tied to a certain building and doesn’t look down on people.

Wilson, a father of eight, said he used to attend an Assembly of God Church, but was attracted to the idea of churches held in homes or other places, and was glad he could wear jeans.

“I’m comfortable wherever God is and that’s everywhere,” added his friend Ed Eno.

Many people are hesitant to attend church, Price said, because they feel they aren’t good enough, or are too sinful. For example, some feel they can’t live with their boyfriends or girlfriends, must cease swearing, or driving and talking on the cell phone before they can even set foot in a church. Sometimes, she said the “gerbil wheel of Christianity” eventually turns people off when they feel they can’t turn their lives around right away like traditional clergy expect. Although God heals hearts, she said behaviors may not change all at once.

Price said Jesus came for the sick not the healthy, and met people right where they were in life. At the Red Door, Price said visitors don’t have to pretend to be something they aren’t.

“I love them where they are at rather than where they are supposed to be,” Price said. “There’s nobody I refuse to fellowship with. I’d much rather hang out with someone who is broken, than someone who thinks they don’t have any need.”

Prices defines spiritual success as having a relationship with God, which improves relationships with other people.