It’s 1:30 am on a Monday — well, Tuesday now — and church is still packed. The cocktails are flowing at Black Betty, the Williamsburg nightspot where Rev. Vince Anderson has conducted services of his “Church of the Holy, Unruly Spirit of God in Christ” every week for the past three years.
This is church in the broadest definition of the word: it’s whatever bar he happens to be playing in at the time. The Reverend, who is officially ordained, appears with his “Love Choir” — but don’t expect any robes on the one occasional backup singer; the “Love Choir” is a backing band comprised of bass, drums, trombone, and baritone sax.
And, naturally, the Reverend, the lead singer, accompanies himself on the keys.
The crowd is a mix of young and old, from a wide array of backgrounds. One pony-tailed young man in a Pink Floyd T-shirt remarks on how “awesome” the Reverend is. A young woman drags her older date out into the middle of the floor to cut a rug, even as she makes a point of letting everyone know, “I’m Jewish.”
Many come simply for the music, which you don’t have to be religious to appreciate (it’s rip-roarin’ “dirty gospel,” a term coined after the fact, but which has become a sort of theology).
In Anderson’s original tune, “Get Outta My Way,” Jesus likes to “blow off some steam and disrupt a wedding.” In another, Anderson responds to Jerry Falwell’s post-9-11 statement that “New York City got what it deserved,” by growling, Tom Waits-like, “Don’t think Jesus done it that way.”
As you might imagine, he has received some angry emails, including from one irate Christian who said his act was “turning Jesus into a porn star.”
“Says more about where his mind was,” laughed Anderson. “After all, the best gospel songs have earthly concerns.”
Though the music he plays is gospel, he doesn’t do much preaching at his service. He sometimes guest-ministers at Revolution NYC, another non-traditional church founded by Jay Bakker, the (prodigal) son of Jim and Tammy Faye. Though he was kidded initially about “competition” moving in on his turf, Rev. Vince feels there’s plenty of room in Brooklyn for multiple tavern-based congregations. (Revolution NYC meets on Sundays at nearby Pete’s Candy Store.)
Born in 1970 in Southern California, Vince Anderson grew up in a conventional Lutheran household, though his father, a copier salesman, was “a classic drunk.”
Anderson played piano at the Lutheran church from an early age, and landed his first music director job at age 12 at a startup church run out of a school on Sunday.
“The little Martin Luther in me wanted to change church,” he said wryly.
Anderson moved to New York in 1994 to attend Union Theological Seminary, whose interdenominational approach appealed to him as potentially radical. But Anderson found it overly academic, and saw his classmates as better suited than he to traditional ministering. While being called on to play music more, he saw musicians relegated to a supporting role in the church.
On Epiphany Sunday that year, he decided to leave the seminary and focus on spreading the Gospel through music. Soon after, on the verge of losing his student housing, he noticed a posting in the student union: “Music Director Needed. Housing Provided.”
“God has a sense of humor,” he said with a chuckle.
He got the job, and the housing, the parsonage of a church in Queens, where he stayed for three years. During that period, he began performing in bars on the Lower East Side. His theology had always been “Holy Spirit-based,” rooted in spontaneity, unpredictability, and good old-fashioned mischief.
“God loves children and drunkards,” as he is fond of saying.
He finds the idea of God taking human form — in all its inherent imperfections — life-affirming.
“Real things,” as the good Reverend told GO Brooklyn, “come down to earth, roll around in the mud, and get dirty.”
Rev. Vince Anderson’s “Church of the Holy, Unruly Spirit of God in Christ,” Black Betty (366 Metropolitan Ave. at Havemeyer Street), Monday nights, 10:30 pm. Call (718) 599-0243 for information.