The Church of the Three Velvet Kings
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this may be the new Georgia.
By Sanjena Sathian
We’re in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward district on a dark and drizzly night, just down the street from the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached, and across the way from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. Through the rain a third church beckons, bright and welcoming — beckoning, in fact, with a neon sign that reads CHURCH. On the door hangs a metal plaque with a warning: No open or concealed Bibles allowed on the premises. Which is when you might do a double take and notice, beneath that kitschy neon CHURCH sign, smaller print that says “It’s a bar!”
Seekers, beware: “There are no answers here,” says Grant Henry. Dramatic pause. “Only questions.” The owner and founder of this five-year-old bar in one of Atlanta’s revitalized, hot neighborhoods has a mission: “No one talks religion or politics at bars,” he says. Here, he expects those topics, plus sexuality, race, etc., to be on your brain. But that doesn’t mean CHURCH (full name: Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium) has a nerdy ambience. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s wildly hip, landing travel accolades from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and attracts a young crowd in a competitive market for all those young folk flooding the hub of the Southeast. “Everyone’s trying to attract millennials” in Atlanta these days, says local food blogger Sasha Taratov, who notes the Old Fourth Ward is winning that game.
And CHURCH is one main draw of a now thriving, nouveau-hip neighborhood that was once bereft of yuppies and general safety alike. Perhaps more fascinating, though, is that CHURCH’s very presence and its 59-year-old owner, a surprisingly well-known man in the Southeast who wears a “Fuck Fear” necklace and wrist tattoo, are both signs of a fast-changing Atlanta — and American South. This city, like so many others, is in the midst of an urban revitalization, from a version of New York’s High Line snaking its way through its heart to plenty of attempts to reverse the white flight of the ’70s. But also, it’s a reminder of just how much wacky one person’s life can contain.
Words are important when dealing with Grant Henry. He writes emails entirely in verse, and signs them “the Happiest Man Alive.”
Some people, Henry tells me with an air of confidentiality, “think I’m batshit crazy.” He leans back and sips his rum. He wears a fedora, an ominous-looking black trench coat, sunglasses (which he does not remove, even in the dim bar) and a bright orange scarf. Henry’s life has been a collage as strange and jigsawed together as this place. He is an almost-preacher, a bartender, an artist (who goes by the pseudonym Sister Louisa) and a serious businessman who tells me CHURCH was profitable from day one. Raised in Panama City and Tallahassee, Florida, and then here in Cobb County, Georgia, Henry is the child of divorced educators; his father was a principal, his mother a teacher. He calls them “square” and says he “grew up way too trusting — maybe that’s why I’m stuck on trying to find ‘the Truth.’ ”
The party is raging tonight. Upstairs, 20-somethings are piling in to play Ping-Pong during the regular Monday-night tournament. On the wall next to us, there’s a picture of horses that says “Hung like a savior.” Somewhere nearby is a picture of Jesus on the cross saying, “Ow. BRB.” No one seems to mind the mild cheekiness, including Joe Zimmerman, a Ping-Pong-playing patron who found CHURCH via an Instagram feed and says it’s always a stop on weekends. Despite being Catholic, Zimmerman is untroubled by the decor. “I get a kick out of it,” he says. “Like a spin on Catholicism.”
Down in the belly of the bar, I am getting the lowdown on Henry’s past, which makes me feel a bit like a bartender listening to a stranger’s lovelorn musings. He’s sober and straightforward about his wild life: At 22, he married a 36-year-old with two kids; their affair began before she had divorced her first husband, and — it’s hard to keep track of it all as Henry speeds through the narrative — the night they moved in together to start their new life, her ex was killed by a drunk driver. “I wrote a letter to God, whoever that is,” Henry says. This is the only time he removes his sunglasses. “I ripped up that letter to God,” he says.
He stayed with his wife, though he was young, young enough that the kids called him “dad-boy,” for almost a decade. He was the president of the PTA, worked in a psych hospital with “a bunch of fuckups” and went to Georgia State at night before attending seminary, “to figure out my shit.” Henry never did become a preacher; the next decade found him running an antiques store, digging up tacky paint-by-numbers biblical images and scrawling pithy lines over them. That’s the sort of “art” you find here at the bar, such as an image of the Last Supper captioned “Separate checks, please?” to which Jesus responds, “That’s OK, I paid the price for you all.”
There was another marriage in there, to a teacher, and then, the twist. “I fell in love with a man,” he says, matter-of-factly. Another divorcé, another antiques store owner. “I never was in the closet.” Henry doesn’t think of himself as gay, which, he says, makes him “not-well-liked” in the Atlanta gay community; he doesn’t fight for gay rights, he tells me, because he doesn’t feel “wronged. I don’t allow words” — presumably, definitional words re: sexuality — “to have any power.” (I think of this when I encounter the bathroom signs, which, instead of indicating gender, say “WHICHEVER.”)
Words are important when dealing with Grant Henry. He is playful, calling himself a “Steady Eddie” through all his ups and downs. He writes emails entirely in verse, and signs them “the Happiest Man Alive.” (“It’s just how I write!” he insists.) He is somewhat postmodern at moments, culture jamming, telling me he likes to “play with symbols” (like, for instance, the framed portraits of “the Three Kings” above the bar — the portraits are velvet and the kings are Jesus, MLK and Elvis). Henry tells me why he never became a minister. To be ordained, he had to pronounce Jesus Christ the only route to salvation. “I can’t say that,” he said. The reply: “Just say it. It’s just words. You’re a great preacher, and it’s a great job.” He dropped out of seminary and that, he says, was when he started painting on images of Jesus. “I mean,” he says, “they’re ‘just words.’ ”