BY DAVID LAUDERDALE
Happy hour just went eternal in Bluffton.
Such is the hope of a young flock turning the town’s most infamous bar into a church.
The almost biblical transformation will be unveiled at 10:30 a.m. next Sunday, Feb. 28, at an address the police know so well, 39 Persimmon St., Suite 203.
Mamas with children will walk beneath bullet holes into this new ministry of St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church on Hilton Head Island.
Gone is the shot dispenser with its Saturday-night theology: “Tastes like heaven, burns like hell.”
Clinging to the wall is a wooden cross fashioned from the old rugged bar.
It’s a built-in sermon for the Rev. Daniel Burbage.
“It’s an example of transformation and how God takes things that might not necessarily be whole — that might be kind of broken — and changes it and turns it into something that can be grace-filled,” he said.
“That’s what this is all about.”
The congregation, like much of Bluffton, is new.
For two years, it has been meeting at the University of South Carolina Beaufort in Okatie. St. Andrew has purchased a 10-acre lot in the new part of town. And now it has its own place, with an office for the pastor, a nursery for the babies, a Keurig machine behind the bar and a disco ball over a stage where Edwin McCain once performed when it was the Blind Pig Saloon.
It’s not the first building transformation here. Central Church on Hilton Head is in a building that once served as the island’s first topless bar.
Next Sunday’s grand opening for the new St. Andrew campus will be a prayer service, Burbage said.
The place needs it.
It had been Parkway Billiards, the House of Tunes Music Hall, and Coconuts Bar & Grill. Then it became the Encore Lounge, where boozing till 4 a.m. forced Bluffton Town Council to pore over its laws on last-call.
Then the place swerved out of control in an otherwise nice-looking business park. The last call came in a police raid.
It was known as Burroughs Bar and Grill Night Club when cops raided on a Saturday night last September, finding suspected heroin, four firearms, 59 rounds of ammunition and 610 bottles of illegal alcohol. The owner was charged with operating without a business license or liquor permit and unlawfully carrying a firearm.
It looked like the last judgment had stopped the action, like a bullet to the juke box.
“It smelled like a mixture of sweat, liquor and rotten food,” Burbage said.
Church members were overjoyed to find the place. They’ve been painting and scraping for the past month. A contractor removed one of the bars and fashioned a nursery and two classrooms with a divider out of the open floor space dominated by a stage.
The congregation is 130 strong now. It’s among a growing number of churches trying to throw down anchors as Bluffton has sprawled into one of America’s fastest-growing towns.
In one way, Burbage reflects the community well. He just turned 38. He and his wife, Kelley, an attorney, have children ages 4 and 5. They live in a new subdivision.
But Burbage is different in that he was reared in Beaufort County, where his family has roots to his great-great-grandparents. His grandfather, Miles Burbage, was editor of The Beaufort Gazette.
That gives Daniel Burbage the perspective to see a community struggling to find a “there-there.”
“Church is so important to Bluffton,” he said. “We need something to pull us together. People my age and younger are not part of the community, and they want to be.”
His church’s answer is to be a place for service as much as worship.
“Our mission is to be about transformation,” Burbage said. “Faith in God has changed me a lot, and I’ve seen it change a lot of people for the better, and they in turn help others change. Why can’t it change a building?”