Spirited singing: Monthly Beer & Hymns event mixes music and fellowship ... in a pub
James Steinhagen stopped in for a sandwich and got a side of worship.
It was Beer & Hymns night at Sir Benedict's Tavern on the Lake, where the majority of tables were filled with people singing "We Gather Together," "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and more.
"It's definitely different," the Superior man said during a lull, and when the singers resumed: "It's peaceful."
Beer & Hymns is a non-denominational event on the last Sunday of the month at Sir Ben's. Back in the days of Martin Luther, singing hymns and theological discussion all happened around the same table at the pub, said Charlotte Frantz, an event regular and a pastor at United Presbyterian Church in Superior. Today, it's a common pub combination in the Twin Cities, and it's a Sir Ben's staple.
"It's a great expression of ecumenical unity," Ted Lewis said, adding that it shows denominations can transcend their differences by singing together.
The Duluth man used to sing a lot of these hymns growing up. "I've been in and out of the church world, but this is a way to really stay connected," he said.
Everybody is in a good mood, and the music is positive and uplifting, said Sir Ben's owner Josh Stotts. As far as customer response: "Interested bewilderment," added Corey Gice, Sir Ben's staff, but the regulars know what to expect.
And not everybody sings, and not everybody drinks.
Laurie Boche and Sally Herstad had root beer and shared a hymnal on Sunday. Boche is pastor at Hope United Methodist Church in Duluth. She's been attending off and on since the event started in 2014. Beer & Hymns promotes relationship-building, Boche said. You sit and sing with new people or reunite with old friends. For Herstad, the choral atmosphere is a big draw. "If you're not solo material, it's fun to sing in a group.
"It's people who like to sing who are here," she said.
'Open doors, open arms'
On Sunday, waiters weaved through the aisles delivering bowls of squash soup and mountains of nachos, as silent football players raced across a TV screen. Emcee Alison Klawiter stood near the microphone with Louise Foss on piano.
"A cappella," Klawiter said in the middle of a song. As Foss lifted her hands from the keys, the pub filled with rich and complex harmonies. Deep bass and tenor, high sopranos. It was like sitting in the middle of a choir concert. Live surround sound.
At the end of the song, Klawiter waved an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Later, she said improvised moments like these are her favorite part of Beer & Hymns. "It's really cool to hear the quality of voices that do show up," she said.
Dick Anderson and his wife, Yvonne, are event regulars, and they usually snag the same table. The Andersons sing in the choir at First Lutheran Church in Duluth; they're also members of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra chorus.
"We can do the spirituals and music that we don't as often get to in church choir," he said of Beer & Hymns.
Klawiter picks the first set of songs. For the second half of the program, people put in requests from a variety of mostly donated books: "The Lutheran Book of Worship," "The Faith We Sing" and "The United Methodist Hymnal."
The monthly event was Klawiter's brainchild. The Superior woman saw an article about a similar event, talked it over with friends Lawrence Lee and Patrick Colvin, and after partnering with Sir Ben's, Beer & Hymns grew from word-of-mouth, Facebook and a few posters.
Klawiter sang in chapel choir at St. Olaf College, and today, Beer & Hymns helps feed her creatively and spiritually. "It's a different choir every month. You don't know how many basses will be in attendance or how many sopranos. ... It's an ineffable thing."
Music is a powerful form of self-expression, and the camaraderie of singing together is a big draw for piano accompanist Foss. She's part of a group from the Solon Springs area who carpool to Duluth once a month for the event.
Foss anticipates a bar may be a deterrent for some, but others may feel more welcome because of the venue. "Churches are so often forbidding to people who have had prior bad experiences, so it's a way to show open doors and open arms."
The group sang a mix of advent songs, Appalachian spirituals and traditional-sounding songs. A hymn is technically a song designed to praise God, but they can take many different forms, said Lee, who has served as a pastor for 24 years.
They can be transpositions of prayers or Bible verses. They can be less about praise and more about teaching theology. Some are meditative with repetitive, mantra-like phrasing.
For Klawiter, hymns are anything that speaks to something bigger, and it doesn't necessarily have to mention Jesus or God. They're about expression, uncertainty, joy, thanksgiving; they're a way to put feelings about faith into music, she said.
Spirituality isn't just about cerebral knowledge, Lee said. "It has to be something that beats in your heart, and you walk it with every step," he said. And singing embodies that more than recitation. "As some friends of mine who are monks say, 'When you sing, you pray twice.' "
For the Rev. Charlotte Frantz, hymns are an emotional connection to family.
On Sunday, Frantz joined in the last song of the night, "I'll Fly Away" — a hymn sung at the funeral for her mother, who struggled with Parkinson's disease. "The whole sense of being finally released from immobility was so important to her," she said.
Frantz started coming to Beer & Hymns about a year ago. "When I'm at church, I'm leading worship, and here I just sing," the Duluth woman said.
Se looks forward to praising and acknowledging that God is her lord at these events. "This is what feeds my soul every month."
If you go
• What: Beer & Hymns: A gathering for spirited singing of sacred songs
• When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 31
• Where: Sir Benedict's Tavern on the Lake, 805 E. Superior St.
• More info: facebook.com/beerandhymnsduluth