Church-buys-bar is a man-bites-dog phenomenon. But South Side Baptist Church of Covington, Kentucky, has no plans to apply for a liquor license at the old Salty Dog Saloon.
Church leaders say they are in the conversion business and plan to transform the cocktail lounge into the El Ji Moore Activity Center and a meeting site for Alcoholics Anonymous.
The unusual acquisition occurred last April after the saloon's owner changed his mind and agreed to sell the building. The owner's offer came five days before the congregation of South Side Baptist would have voted on shifting a $100,000 donation earmarked for the saloon purchase to an elevator project. "It's been a thorn in my flesh," says pastor Harold Pike, who saw a previous purchase attempt fail when a different owner increased the price. "I told people thousands of times, 'We're going to get it one day.' " Sitting in the shadows of Cincinnati's gleaming new $453 million football stadium, Covington's South Side Baptist is like many inner-city congregations. A steady suburban exodus left behind fading Sunday attendance and accompanying financial shortages.
But Pike, a native Kentuckian, points out that week-day outreach by South Side Baptist illustrates how his church interacts with more people today than in its heyday four decades ago.
Christian education, job training, recreation, and family events will soon fill the center's calendar, says Amy Cummins, the center's director. But that goal is uncertain. Although South Side Baptist had enough money to buy the bar, it has yet to fully fund the center's operating budget. Tight finances have left South Side struggling just to cover the director's salary.
Church leaders, however, are focusing on keeping the cost of both ministry and remodeling within their limits. Church members gave free haircuts to students at the beginning of the school year. Volunteers scrubbed away decades of cigarette smoke and installed a drop ceiling. Pike and four church leaders learned how to install a new finish on the saloon's brick exterior, which they will do in the spring.
Not everyone, especially the former saloon's patrons, is happy about the community center. Maintenance director Dennis Northcutt still greets an occasional barfly who stops in at 8 a.m. in search of the next beer. Northcutt says he is a recovering alcoholic who eventually renewed his own Christian commitment after becoming sober.
Many credit their pastor's perseverance for the new center. "He held true," says Donna Cox, South Side Baptist's financial secretary since 1972. "We might have been one of those inner-city churches that closed."
Pike, who at 65 rides a motorcycle to work and stays fit by playing basketball, deflects special recognition. "I promised the Lord through the years, if he got it for us, we would use it for his glory," he says.
Last October Christianity Today ran a similar story about a church that was meeting in The Pink Palace Gaming Hall, an old casino. Read "Church Takes Aim at Deadwood."
Other resources for churches wanting to host drug and alcohol recovery programs include:
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