The Baptists And The Bar When Troubles At The Place, A Trenton Taproom, Spilled Over To The Neighboring Union Baptist Church, There Was Only One Thing To Do. The Congregation Bought It And Shut It Down.

Posted: January 31, 2001

TRENTON — It sounds like the beginning of a cliched joke: "A minister walks into a bar . . ."

But the punch line - where the preacher buys the joint with $67,500 from the church building fund - is anything but old hat.

Such is the lesson of the buying Baptists of the West Ward, the fed-up church folk in this working-class neighborhood who purchased a noisome bar just to shut it down.

When you fight sin in the inner city, bring your Bible. But don't forget your checkbook.

"I don't want to buy up all of Trenton," says the Rev. Simeon Spencer, pastor of Union Baptist Church, which finalized the deal in November. "But a ministry can't stay inside the walls. And I wanted the bar gone."

"The bar was a sore spot," parishioner Charles Fitzgerald says. "It had a tendency to corrupt. Nothing was being done about this core of vice."

The bar, called The Place, was indeed troublesome. "A very bad element hung out there," says Sgt. Jim Dellaira, a Trenton police spokesman, adding that The Place was the site of two homicides over the years. What's more, he says, "Minors were served. There were shootings, stabbings, drugs. For church folk, it was an atrocity. And it was bad for the neighborhood."

Just 100 feet from the doors of Union Baptist, The Place, painted a faded yellow, is across a tiny street from the church parking lot. Often, bar patrons would park in the lot, taking up the spaces of frightened, frustrated parishioners on their way to an evening event at the church.

Drunken patrons would smash beer and wine bottles on the ground, then drive off. Sometimes, besotted motorists would crash into the church-owned cyclone fence that rings the lot.

One cold night, a reeling bar patron, bleeding from a knife wound he'd just received at The Place, banged into a churchman walking to his car.

That kind of thing outraged Mr. Spencer, a tall, 36-year-old Princeton graduate. At a meeting last February, he announced his desire to buy the bar. Just then, a parishioner informed him that The Place was indeed for sale.

"The providence of God was involved because I'd only said it as a musing," Mr. Spencer recalls. "We formed a committee right then."

Church members voted to spend a portion of the building fund, with just one parishioner opposed. "He wondered what in the world a church would do with a bar," Mr. Spencer says. "But most of the people understood what had to be done."

* In July, while the church was in the process of buying the bar, the city closed it for various violations. By Thanksgiving, the church had taken ownership.

On Dec. 1, congregants filed into the sanctuary for Sunday service.

There, at the foot of the altar, was the 3-by-4-foot, red-and-white sign torn from The Place. It lay on its side on the immaculate red carpet, its electrical wires ripped and dangling, looking like the spoils from a holy war. Church officer Joe Jackson remembers the sun was shining, lasering a warm light through the windows that was refracted into a half-dozen colors by the stained glass.

"Parishioners were shocked to see that the altar was the sign's final resting place," Jackson says.

Mr. Spencer took to the pulpit and raised his voice, preaching a joyous sermon that played on the bar's name: "The place to which this sign refers was occupying a place in this neighborhood where lives were not built, but rather torn down," he told a packed house. "And a place like that has no place in a city whose builder and maker is God. . . . God can give us the power to take hold of our neighborhoods . . . and build them for God."

Ask religious experts whether it's common practice for churches to buy bars to shutter them and you'll get blank stares. "I don't know of any cases like this," says the Rev. Anthony Floyd, president of the Philadelphia Council of Clergy.

But for Mr. Spencer, it just seemed natural.

"That perversion [the bar] had manifested itself, and it seemed silly for us to preach hope and have resources, yet not do what we could do," he says.

* On a recent cold day, Mr. Spencer tours his church's new property, considering potential uses.

The cramped, dark place retains the trademark bar stink of smoke and alcohol. Mr. Spencer eyes a solid oak backbar that could fetch a good price from New Jersey antiques dealers. He nearly slips on a slab of ice that has formed from leaking water.

A sign says "No drugs allowed," an ironic totem of past days, when, Dellaira says, The Place was known as a spot where area drug dealers would come to drink. In a back office, Mr. Spencer finds a cache of surveillance tapes, stacked in a dusty pile. The life and recorded times of The Place sit unseen. Mr. Spencer has no interest in viewing them.

"We may make it a youth center," the pastor says as he returns to the afternoon light of the street. "That's something we'll talk about next month."

He walks into Walt's Barber Shop, across from the former bar, to check on a haircut appointment. Immediately, he's greeted with love.

"The church bought the bar and saved our lives," owner Walter Carter says. "There were guys killed in that bar, juveniles drinking - a lot of negativity."

A neighbor, the Rev. Russell Bethea, a minister in another church, happens by. "After the church bought The Place, there was peace, quiet, calm."

Neighborhood gratitude follows Mr. Spencer even as he walks back to this office. "We really appreciate it, Rev," a woman yells from a second-floor window. "God bless you."

Such hero worship isn't shared by everyone in the area. Theodore Addison, who used to manage The Place for the group that owned it, says that the bar wasn't nearly as bad as Mr. Spencer, his flock and the police portray it.

"I don't know what their problem was," Addison says indignantly. "It was not a corrupting place. It was just a neighborhood bar. The church made too much of it."

Mr. Spencer doesn't think so. He tells the story of a young woman who had struggled with alcoholism until the church bought the bar. She was so moved by it, "from then on, she has been sober," Mr. Spencer says.

If buying a bar could do that, he reasons, it was money well-spent. Because in the end, he says, a church's mission is to help the people around it.

"One thing I never wanted the church to be," Mr. Spencer says, "is a place that just took from the community."

Alfred Lubrano's e-mail address is alubrano@phillynews.com.

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