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Beer & Hymns: Area churches take hymn singing public

Dennis Lester chimes in during a Beer and Hymn event at the Cozy Cup Cafe in Parkers Prairie. Behind him are keyboarist Pam Wenzel and Pastor Rachel Stout on guitar. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)1 / 3
From left, retirees Freelyn Wenzel, Harris Haugen and Dennis Lester sing hymns at the Cozy Cup Cafe in Parkers Prairie. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)2 / 3
Two people simultaneously called out the same hymn number, causing a chuckle for Phyllis Haugen, who came to the Beer and Hymn event at the Cozy Cup Cafe in Parkers Prairie with her husband Harris Haugen, left. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)3 / 3

In a Parkers Prairie cafe, amid the clink of silverware and dishes, a young girl hands out booklets that have been stapled together.

"Beer & Hymnal," they say on the front. "Beer is optional. Singing is not."

Although Coke cans outnumber the beer bottles, it's Beer and Hymn night at the Cozy Cup Cafe, hosted by the First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Parkers Prairie. It was started nearly three years ago, after Pastor Rachel Stout arrived and began looking for ways to rekindle joy in the 150-year-old congregation.

"They were a faithful group but they were tired," she said. "There wasn't a lot of joy in their gatherings. When I came, my first goal was to create opportunities for people to get together."

She had heard about Beer and Hymn events in other places, and asked the congregation for feedback.

"I had one member say, 'I don't think this is what the church should be doing,'" Stout recalled. "I said, 'Well, let's talk about what it is before we shut it down.'"

After a discussion, they decided to go ahead, and the member even showed up for a Beer and Hymn event.

They started singing once a month at the local bar with the permission of the owner at the time, as long as they didn't come on Mondays or poker night, Stout said. At that time, they met every month.

"There were a couple of bar flies who would join us," she said. "They were lapsed Catholics. It was church for them in a way they had never experienced church before. They were just embraced by our group."

It was what she had hoped for.

"I wanted the congregation to see how we could be a church outside of the building," she said. "For Lutherans, with our German heritage, there's already sort of a pub connection, if you will, to the faith and so it's become very natural to go back to that setting. I don't care what you drink. Not everyone drinks. It's really about fellowship and it's about opening us up to the community."

After the bar changed hands, the group moved to the cafe. They meet once every few months on Thursday nights, and while they drew only 13 people on May 16, they typically number about 30, Stout said. Their numbers were down because the farmers were in the fields. Someone else was away for a marathon.

Their next event is in September.

As they sang, cars passed outside the window on Minnesota State Highway 29 and the waitress delivered onion rings and wiped tables. The pastor's kids headed out to the playground. The group called out hymns: "Jesus Loves Me," and "Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."

Freelyn Wenzel, a retired truck driver, said he grew up singing hymns and enjoys it to this day.

"I watched the Billy Graham show. I liked him. He didn't beat around the bush. He told it the way it is," Wenzel said.

According to beerandhymns.org, the first event to pair beer and hymns was in England in 2006. It crossed the ocean in 2012, at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, a progressive Christian event with speakers, music and art.

The festival's endorsement "sparked a great enthusiasm for it in churches and communities across the States," according to the website. "In fact, Beer & Hymns has become a regular in churches programmes across the UK and the world, often used as a way to authentically connect communities and share communion."

In Alexandria, Calvary Lutheran Church has done something similar at Gathered Oaks, said business manager Katie Rentschler.

"Last year, we did one before Christmas called Carols and Cocktails," she said. "It attracted all age groups. We had people from age 21 all the way up to 80-something. It was a fun environment to mix together."

Their church emphasizes welcoming all people, she said, and they wanted to include church members who might typically socialize with a drink in their hand.

A group has also sung hymns at the Rusty Nail, a bar in Battle Lake, said server Katie Shea. They come in, order dinner and sing for a couple hours in the evening, although they haven't done it since last fall.

While some customers leave because of the noise level, others stay even if they're not part of the group, Shea said.

"They either listen or they sing with them," she said.

In Parkers Prairie, one family got up and left the cafe as the music started. Mary Koep said she had brought three granddaughters to the cafe as a birthday treat and felt they wouldn't be able to hear each other over the music.

"We don't have anything against Jesus," she said, but she didn't care to hear hymns while she was eating.

"There's a time and a place as far as I'm concerned. At church."

They got their food to go.

Back in the kitchen, cafe employee Cheyenne Riedel said the Beer and Hymn sings have drawn mixed reviews from customers.

Cook Nancy Gahlon said the event helps the cafe, because Thursdays tend to be slow.

"It's a shot in the arm when they come in," she said.