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A gospel for all people, bar none

One pastor uses city nightlife for ministry

by Peggy Mumper

“It’s not because they don’t want God. There’s just a disconnect with church.”

Jeremy Ritch is talking about the folks who have joined the Bible study he and his wife, Hannah, lead at McGrath’s Pub on Locust Street in downtown Harrisburg, Pa. As Jeremy, of Harrisburg BIC, explains, many in the group have little or no religious background, and most express hurts from or suspicion about organized religion. But they trust Jeremy and Hannah, who bring the Gospel to them in the places where they congregate with friends.

On this night, Chris Tomlinson, who also assists with the ministry, is teaching from Matthew 6 on the different aspects of prayer. Music and noise drift in from the bar in the room next door to the study. Chris hones in on the words of the Lord’s Prayer and encourages listeners to “just be yourself as you talk to God. When you ask forgiveness for something, know you don’t have to keep begging for it. God’s like ‘Dude, I’m over it.’” Members of the group nod in agreement.

The six men and two women here tonight are in their 20s or 30s and share interests in music, art, tattoo art, classic cars, roller derby, and mixed martial arts. During the week, they stay in touch on Facebook. Some of them are eating dinner, while others are sipping a beer or smoking a cigarette as they study. Chris has distributed a few copies of the New Testament, and everyone follows along as he reads from the text.

One of men, Mike Fritz, tells me he had just been through the breakup of a long-term relationship and the death of his brother when he met Jeremy and the group. He saw the care and mutual support between members and says, “I thought, ‘I have to become a part of that.’”

Jeremy and Chris spend time in the city’s bars building relationships, particularly with wait staff and bartenders. “It’s not an easy job to work ’til two or three in the morning,” says Jeremy, who also pastors Holdfast Ministries, a church that meets on Sunday evenings to accommodate attendees’ varied work schedules. “A lot of them listen to other peoples’ problems all night. They like being able to tell you what’s going on in their lives.”

He adds, “We really feel called to these people.”

This article originally appeared in the fall 2010 issue of In Part magazine.

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