Old Time Religion
Every time Rev. Russell Rathbun delivers a sermon to his House of Mercy congregation in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, he leaves them with stories, thoughts and ideas to ponder. Sometimes his words are enough to get you through a tough day, make you think a little deeper about a subject, or act as a cushion on which to lay your head. But for one who is a pro at making sense out of complicated lessons, Rathbun relies heavily on music to help decipher many of his own feelings.
“Music has always been about other people articulating things I feel or think about or believe,” says Rathbun, 39, a Berkley-educated preacher who cites the punk classic “Anarchy In The U.K.” and its lyric, “I don’t know what I want, but I know how to get it,” as among those insightful songs.
It’s not everyday you hear a man of the cloth recite lyrics to a Sex Pistols song. It’s not everyday you find a church that has incorporated live performances by former Husker Du member Grant Hart, Michelle Shocked, Gordon Gano, Ralph Stanley and Charlie Louvin into its services — or one that holds its weekly mass at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday.
For nearly a decade, the House of Mercy has devoted itself to theology, art, music and community. One of the church’s most distinctive relationships isn’t with a politician or celebrity, it’s with St. Paul’s hippest bar, the Turf Club. Posters of the Replacements, Johnny Cash, Neil Young and the Ramones adorn its walls, and there’s a jukebox stocked with everything from Twin Cities staples to Alex Chilton to Willie Nelson.
In 2001, the church teamed up with the Turf Club to host a performance by Ralph Stanley, who played the first portion of the “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning” event at the Turf on Saturday, followed by a full set at the House of Mercy on Sunday.
A more recent collaboration is “House of Mercy: Live at the Turf Club,” a two-hour show in the spirit of the Grand Ole Opry broadcast live on the internet at www.misplaced music.org the last Sunday of every month. It has become the bar version of another St. Paul-based radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Led by the House of Mercy Band, the variety show includes jokes, skits and letters from listeners, but it’s focused on live music. Last November’s show featured classic country covers by Pop Wagner, the bluesy country of the Front Porch Swingin’ Liquor Pigs, and a dose of soul from Jon Rodine. The highlight came from three transplanted Minnesota siblings originally from Northern Ireland. The Brave — Robin, Ben and Laurie Kyle — played a handful of Pogues-influenced folk-pop originals. The night ended with the House of Mercy band leading the entire bar on “I Saw The Light”.
The only thing missing is the religious pitch.
“We have Turf Club regulars that do not come to the church,” says House of Mercy music director and bandleader Chris Larson, who holds a masters of fine arts from Yale. “We are not in the clubs hoping that our audience will find church. We are there for the same reason as they are — to drink, enjoy music and be with a community of friends. I guess I could say the exact thing about the church regulars.”
Music is as much a part of the House of Mercy’s history as is worship. A statement on their website (www.houseofmercy.org) reads, “Having themselves all been in garage bands at one time or another…the three pastors knew the importance of good music.” And it shows: Any given Sunday night service might feature music by the Violent Femmes, Hank Williams, the Carter Family or Charles Wesley, mixed in with classic old-time American hymns.
Along with Larson and Rathbun, reverends Mark Stenberg and Debbie Blue also deliver the House of Mercy’s message — “A discriminating blend of high church and low, of tradition and innovation, sincere worship and healthy skepticism….You may occasionally be led to suspend your intellect. But you will not be required to sacrifice it.”
“We are kind of like a band,” says Rathbun of the House of Mercy team. “Like R.E.M. in the writing credits — you know, all songs by R.E.M. as opposed to a Lennon/McCartney writing credit. So these shows and everything we do are all band ideas.”
Among the many band ideas was to start Mercy Recordings (www.mercyrecordings.com), which boasts more than a dozen releases by Rodine, Larson, the Baptism River Ramblers and others, plus a compilation of hymns by artists including Slim Dunlap, Gordon Gano, Dana Thompson and the House of Mercy Band. Last spring, the label also released the Creekdippers’ Political Manifest, featuring Mark Olson and his wife Victoria Williams expressing their distaste for President Bush and his administration.
The thing that makes the House of Mercy so appealing to its members and admirers is that the core team understands nobody is all Saturday night and nobody is all Sunday morning.
And don’t expect them to hound you for support. If you dig them, great. If not, no problem. The most aggressive sales pitch the House of Mercy throws isn’t even delivered in person, but is on the church’s telephone voice mail.
“You should come. It’s not that bad.”