Melissa Nelson-Gabriel/Associated Press
Melissa Nelson-Gabriel/Associated Press
PERDIDO KEY, Fla. –On a balmy Sunday morning at the Flora-Bama Lounge, Package and Oyster Bar, barkeeps set up their stations as churchgoers filtered in under a Jack Daniels banner.
The iconic bar, which sits on the Florida and Alabama state line, is famous for its annual mullet-tossing contest – patrons gather on the beach and throw dead fish from Alabama into Florida.
Bikini contests, bar brawls and drink specials are the day-to-day business of the beach bar that calls itself “America’s last roadhouse.”
But for one hour every Sunday, the Flora-Bama is home to about 450 regular congregants of Worship at the Water, an outreach service of the Perdido Bay United Methodist Church. More than 1,100 filled the place on Easter Sunday.
Bible study is in the upstairs bar.
If Jesus returned to Earth, he’d probably kick back at the Flora-Bama, said Jack de Jarnette, a founding pastor of the church.
“It’s the sort of place he often went and hung out with people,” he said. “When you cannot get people to come to church, the alternative is to bring the church to them.”
A band in tie-dyed T-shirts played Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” as parishioners gathered underneath an awning adorned with rows of Land Shark beer flags on a recent Sunday. Most wore flip-flops and shorts, but some wore swimsuits.
“If you look closely, you might see a few of the churchgoers having a Bloody Mary or a bushwhacker,” longtime bar employee Blitz Poston said. “It’s really a wonderful thing that brings together people from all walks of life.”
Offerings are collected in neon tackle boxes placed throughout the bar.
Pastor Jeremy Mount wears Mardi Gras beads, shorts, sandals and T-shirt that is fringed around the sleeves.
“There are seven places to drink and no place to worship God on this key,” he said. “We feel like God has called us here to be a ministry. Where would there ever be a better place than the world-renown Flora-Bama?”
His sermon is one of redemption and hope, followed by a communion with bread and grape juice instead of wine.
Many members of his flock were regular churchgoers before they started attending the Flora-Bama service. Others have become regulars because they like the unique setting, Mount said.
“Some had never been to church, ever, but they felt so comfortable here in the Flora-Bama,” he said.
Church member Paul Holland is a longtime fan of the Flora-Bama, which he said is a five-star honky-tonk filled with top-shelf rednecks. He has become an even bigger fan of the church service.
“I don’t want to be judged because I don’t have a three-piece-suit, and I don’t drive a brand-new car and this is that kind of church – they don’t judge you. I feel like I’m more welcome in this church than any I’ve ever attended in my life,” he said.
The service is just a year old, starting July 4, 2011.
Church volunteer Joye Fletcher was baptized behind the Flora-Bama in the Gulf of Mexico during Worship at the Water’s first anniversary.
“It’s just an awesome spirit-led service,” she said.
The service is often a surprise for the tourists who flock to the strip of snow-white sand and turquoise water during the summer months, said Bruce Barrios, the bar’s Sunday manager.
“We have so many people in from out of town. We have people come in and when they see we are having church they pick up a Bloody Mary, a bushwhacker or a soft drink, sit down and listen to the sermon. It’s really cool, you know, it’s unique.”
The appeal of the service for church member John Mason-Smith is that everyone is welcome.
“This is a place I can go and learn about God without all the constraints,” he said. “It is a place that people who aren’t going to church feel welcome and that’s what we love about the Flora-Bama – you could be next to a guy who is down on his luck and the guy next to him is a millionaire. That’s the Flora-Bama.”