A Counter-Cultural Church Grows in Brooklyn
Every Monday night at 10:30 p.m., more than 150 young people squeeze into a backroom theatre connected to a bar in Brooklyn, New York. They would never call their gathering a church but if you ever joined them, you wouldn’t know what else to call it. For an hour and a half, they stand while a band led by a piano playing singer who they call “Reverend Vince” engages them with his music. The songs, mostly written by him, are often overtly Christian but his raspy voice and the beat of his music sound more like Woody Guthrie.
Reverend Vince started his program by singing a song he wrote entitled “Get Outta My Way,” with members of his band chiming in. The song picks up on Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees whom He considered to be barriers that kept people from experiencing God or embracing the lifestyle of the eschatological society He called “The kingdom of God.” “Get Outta My Way” points out the judgemantalism and legalism that far too often represent Christianity in today’s world. Reverend Vince notes the hypocrisy that is so easily visible in many of us who pose as leaders of the church. Over and over again he sings what Jesus might say to such contemporary Pharisees – “Get Out of My Way!”
In another of his songs, Reverend Vince sings about the ways that most Evangelical churches treat LGBTQ people, and speaks to a White House that not-too-subtly supports racism, misogyny, and the rich at the expense of the poor. He ends each verse with a refrain sung in blustering tones, “I Don’t Think Jesus Done it that Way!”
With a beat and a style that was somewhere between rock and rap, this very talented musician also sings some more traditional religious songs like, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” and “This Little Light of Mine.”
What impressed me most was when Reverend Vince came off the only slightly raised stage, mingled among those in the packed out audience and had them join him in singing, “Don’t Give Up! We Need You Now.” Moving among the enthralled “congregation” he hugged people and it didn’t take long before everybody in the place started hugging and singing to each other “Don’t Give Up! We Need You Now.” As I watched this “happening” I wondered how many of those gathered there really needed the message of that song. I had to find out more about this amazing man, so I asked him for his story.
Reverend Vince came east from California to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York City and prepare for a preaching ministry. He was a musician on the side, to pay the bills and because he loved doing it. Then, one Sunday morning at the great Riverside Church, Vince Anderson heard a sermon preached by its pastor, Dr. James Forbes. “I felt like he was preaching right at me,“ Rev. Vince recalls now, “That sermon was about how each of us is charged with discovering what God has gifted us to do.” Reverend Vince realized that his gift was to write and sing music, so that’s what he does. That the music he was writing and performing fit better into a bar than a sanctuary, did not deter Rev. Vince from following the call he heard of Riverside Church that Sunday morning.
The rest is history.
A lot goes on in New York but you’d have a very hard time finding a better show than the one at the Union Pool Bar in Brooklyn at 10:30 p.m. on Monday nights and repeated for a second crowd at midnight. That’s where Reverend Vince Anderson and his amazingly talented band have church, and hold forth with music and messages that are truly “good news” to a “secular” audience that gets together every week in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. There’s no cover charge or admission fee, but Reverend Vince does pass his hat (literally) at the end of the show.
“We didn’t charge you to come in here.” he says, “That’s because we wanted you to come even if you can’t pay. If you can give something, put in a little more for somebody who can’t afford to be here.” I was generous, but still I’ve paid a lot more for shows that weren’t half as good. What’s more, the feast I had at the Union Pool Bar moved me as much as any church service I’ve ever attended.
At the end of the show that was so much more than a show, I could almost hear a voice from on high saying, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”