The theology of bartending

Jo Wiersema, a University of Dubuque Theological Seminary student and bartender, shares their ministry behind the bar. Sometimes, they write, you can find the love of God next to a pint of beer.

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

The names of individuals have been changed to protect their privacy.

I set a beer down in front of Jeanne. She looks up and asks, “So, what do you do for a living? Do you work here full-time?”

It’s been a long couple of days — I participated in all three of my church’s Christmas Eve services; I worked at the bar all day on Christmas; and now, on December 26, I’ve just begun the early shift. With a slight smile, I let her know that I work as a children and youth ministry associate at a local church.

Most days, people who learn about my other job respond with their fond memories of youth group or Sunday school — but not Jeanne. She looks to her husband, who now won’t make eye contact with me, and replies, “Oh, we hate Christians.”

There is no malice in her voice. There is nothing accusatory, just a very honest fact for Jeanne and her family. “How are you allowed to work here?” she asks, looking pointedly at the rainbow flag hanging in the brewery.

How am I allowed to work at this small queer-owned brewery in Madison, Wisconsin? Where do faith, sexuality and beer intersect?

Where do faith, sexuality and beer intersect?

I started working at Delta Beer Lab after my first year of seminary. As an extrovert, I love sitting at bars and making a few friends. Delta was a favorite spot of mine, and eventually, I took a job as a bartender.

During my time at Delta, I’ve learned that working at a bar is its own form of chaplaincy. There’s a popular joke that more people confess their sins to bartenders than they do in church. In a town like Madison, full of individuals who don’t have any spiritual affiliation, I’ve seen there’s some truth to that.

In my work behind the bar, I talk people through break-ups, mental health crises, medical diagnosis, and even their own crisis of faith. The transitive nature of a brewery means I might never see you again, but as a bartender, I can love you, for your whole self, at that moment.

We live in a world where it’s easy to feel invisible as you go from store to store or bar to bar. But we’re called by God to be more than that. If we love our neighbor, we see the person on the other side of the bar as more than a customer.

There is spiritual hurt, church neglect and loneliness all around us. But in bartending, there can be care, community and rebuilding. I’m not the pastoral image most people have in mind: I’m small enough to need a stepstool to pour beers, I wear my “They/Them” lapel pin, and most importantly, I’m behind the bar. By providing a countercultural vision of a Christian leader, I open conversations about other ways that expectations, especially expectations of Christianity, can be defied.

The transitive nature of a brewery means I might never see you again, but as a bartender, I can love you, for your whole self, at that moment.

To provide a ministry of presence, to act with Christ’s love in every interaction breaks down the illusion that God is trapped in our sanctuaries. God is here in this bar; God is here sitting next to you through your pain.

Richard comes to Delta almost every week. He drinks a single beer, pays in cash and leaves. This could be a quiet interaction, but over time we’ve found joy and laughter in our relationship. A couple of months ago, I smiled at him as I poured his beer, and he said, “I have something to tell you, but come over when you have a moment.” He finished before I can stop by, but he came in the following week during a slower shift. With no nonsense, he told me he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

“I’m scared, and I don’t know what’s next,” he said.

I reached across the bar and gently grabbed his hand. We were together, though separated by the bar, for a few long moments. “I’m here. I’m always here,” were the only words I could find, but in that moment, we had comfort and peace.

When you are a bartender, you see people through these moments. Bartending is listening — oftentimes hearing people say something for the first time out loud, which is scary because voicing things makes them a little more real. Bartending is a vision of God’s diverse love manifesting itself in a queer little bar right off the highway.

Bartending is a vision of God’s diverse love manifesting itself in a queer little bar right off the highway.

As Jeanne confesses her matter-of-fact hatred of Christians, I smile. I work at Delta because I believe in an inclusive vision of love, even including those who hate the things I love. Otherwise, we live in a greyscale world of homogeneity. At Delta, their vision of inclusion includes hiring a misfit like me, regardless of my faith, gender or beer preference.

It’s okay if Jeanne hates Christians, but today, Jeanne sees a face of Christianity she isn’t expecting. Jeanne sees a small glimpse of hope in a religion that hurt, neglected and discarded her family from the pews. Jeanne was hurt by a church that didn’t follow Christ, but instead finds the love of God right in front of her, next to a pint of beer.