Tiny congregation seeks God in a bar
The Janesville Gazette
Photo by Bill Olmsted
Kathy Price, right, makes a point during a church service she leads at the Willowdale Saloon on Hwy 11 west of Janesville on Sundays. Price's mission is to reach people that may not normally attend a church.
Photo by Bill Olmsted
Kathy Price holds on to a beer while conducting a church service at the Willowdale Saloon. While some of those in attendance, including Price, take advantage of the saloon's liquor license, most of the gathering didn't consume alcoholic beverages.
Photo by Bill Olmsted
Kathy Price, right, listens to the discussion during a church service she conducts on Sundays at the Willowdale Saloon, west of Janesville. Price chose the unlikely place for her ministry in an attempt to reach out to people who might not otherwise attend a religious service.
Photo by Bill Olmsted
Kathy Price bows her head in prayer while conducting her weekly church service at the Willowdale Saloon. Price hopes to reach out to non traditional believers.
IF YOU GO
The Red Door meets at the Willowdale Saloon, 5905 W. Highway 11, just west of Janesville, at 10:30 a.m. Sundays.
JANESVILLE — On Sunday mornings, they gather at the Willowdale Saloon.
Sunlight beams through the windows. The place smells of drink and smoke. Elvis Presley and a Coors Light girl peer out from big posters on the wall. A pool table and big-screen TV are among the furnishings.
Welcome to The Red Door, the only church in the area where beer, cigarettes and chicken wings mingle with prayer and theology.
On this Sunday, 12 congregants and their leader, Kathy Price, push two tables together and cover them with red cloths. They pull up barstools. Price leads them in prayer:
“We ask for your blessing and that your presence be manifest here today, in the name of Jesus … And God bless the Packers, if you’re a Packer fan.”
A few have gotten glasses of beer from the bar. A couple light cigarettes, holding the smoke away from the table. Price’s best friend, Terri Husen of Janesville, orders a bloody mary. Two families have brought their children.
Most are wearing jeans. One wears a T-shirt, Bermuda shorts and sandals. A young man sports a T-shirt with an image of a longhaired man and the words “Jesus is my homeboy.”
Price’s prayer includes a plea for a friend who is in the Rock County Jail.
Congregants share their high points or low points from the past week. Then comes the main event.
Price leans in, a beer on the table in front of her, her long dark hair flowing over the table. She begins the discussion.
Seeking the mystery
This Sunday’s topic is the joy of seeking God as opposed to following religious dogma.
Price decries those who “reserve the right to figure God out and cram him down your throat the way they think he should fit down your throat.
“The only trouble with that is, another man comes around, and he has a different idea of who God is.”
Price thinks religion’s emphasis on rules crowds out the spiritual. Darin Wilson of Janesville chimes in: “If the mystery of God is solved, you’ve lost the seeking, which is where God wants us.”
“Yes, yes, because we don’t find God. He finds our sorry asses,” Price responds.
“I don’t reject rules, but in a relationship with God, the things he sees as most important in dealing with in our lives, he’ll shine a light on,” Price says later. “… I try to stay in connection with his voice.”
Price said there was a time when she was impulsive, and that led her to bad choices when she thought she was hearing God’s voice. Now, she waits to be sure.
She’s sure it was God who pushed her to start The Red Door.
Price dominates the conversation at the table but listens when others speak up. She notes that beer and cigarettes wouldn’t look right to many churchgoers.
“Jesus says it’s not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him. It’s what comes out of his heart,” she says.
“A lot of people are in church this morning. They are not in a bar,” Wilson says. “But they were in a bar last night, and they acted completely different.”
The hypocrisy of some Christians is a recurring theme.
Price quotes author Brian McLaren, that the Bible has been used to justify slavery, racism, violence, oppression of women and other evils.
Price arrives at a favorite topic: Jesus’ sacrifice saved everyone, she believes, not just believers. Not just those who repent.
“The ground is level at the foot of the cross—gay, straight, black or white,” she says.
The idea that Jesus’ sacrifice saved everyone, even nonbelievers, is called universal reconciliation. It’s not mainstream Christian thinking. The Web site Bible.com calls it evil heresy.
Price said she can’t imagine that God’s love would not encompass everyone. She tells her congregation: “God loves you no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter where you’ve been, no matter how bad you look on paper. He loves you, he died for you, he paid the price for your sin.”
The service concludes with a prayer. People slide off their stools but linger to chat.
Church and family
Wilson said he left a big church, where he didn’t feel at home.
“This is closer to the way people gathered in the Book of Acts, when the church was first formed, than in the big churches,” he said.
Scripture says everybody is supposed to be able to speak, Wilson said. “And this is an environment where you can do that. It was never meant to be thousands of people in an auditorium.”
Husen said she has a friend who is an atheist who comes to the Red Door because what she has to say is respected. And no one tries to convert her.
“It’s not our job to convince someone,” Husen said. “It’s God’s job, and God is big enough to do that.”
Wilson is asked about the beer.
“I’m not saying a person should get wasted and do stupid things. (But) Jesus had no problem with people of the world,” he replies.
Wilson said he has a problem with religious people who judge others but then smoke in the church parking lot or overeat at a church potluck.
“It’s a very well functioning part of the body of Christ, and I don’t apologize for the fact that they serve beer here,” he added.
The Red Door Church is a family. If someone has a financial problem, people take up a collection, Price said.
If someone has an alcohol problem, “we will surround him,” Price said. “Whatever anybody needs, we’ll try to meet that need.”
The church doesn’t pass the plate regularly, and Price doesn’t earn a penny.
Price moved away from the religious system she grew up in so she could minister to people who never make it to church.
“I wanted to bring water to the desert instead of the ocean,” she said.
Price and Husen started a Monday night prayer group at the bar about seven years ago, said Willowdale owner Art Conner. But Price felt called to start a Sunday service.
She was looking to rent, but Conner offered the Willowdale free of charge.
Conner, son of a minister, said he never had a second thought.
“That’s what Jesus did. He walked the streets and taught,” Conner said.
Ministering to the outcast is a family affair for Price. She’s the daughter of the Rev. Dave Fogderud who has operated The Overflowing Cup Total Life Center in Beloit since 1974.
Price spent much of her youth in the center’s coffeehouse, exposed to what some call the Jesus revolution and to her father’s outreach to street people and the homeless.
Price married and had five children. She and her husband became ministers. She’s going through what she describes as an amicable divorce. She’s working on a bachelor’s degree at UW-Whitewater.
She still works at The Cup, running a program for “street” youths.
Fogderud attends many Red Door services, even though he disagrees with universal reconciliation.
“I’m proud that my daughter has a heart for people who are down and out and wants to share the word of God with them,” Fogderud said.
Price said The Red Door is a refuge for her as well as her congregants.
“I share my heart with the people I love and listen to their hearts,” she said. “It keeps me grounded. … And I know God told me to do it, and there’s great joy in fulfilling your purpose …
“I want to spend my life loving people that maybe no one else took a chance on.”
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