Columnist – An Angel Walks Into a Bar

Published 5:41 pm Tuesday, January 16, 2024

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I recently had another birthday marked on the calendar. Turning 48 years old could be a non-event at this stage of life. However, I’m fortunate to have a very loving congregation and a legion of good friends and family. So, it did not go unnoticed. 

After receiving a healthy dose of love that day, I came home from church and decided to skip the mental list of chores and holiday preparations to make and treat myself. I realized I had not sat at a bar counter to drink a beer and enjoy a good meal in a while. I decided that I needed that treat. 

I’ve always loved the atmosphere of a good local bar or pub. A mixture of regulars who can communicate with the bartender just through head nods and hand signals, folks meeting up after work, people on a first date and, these days, even Bible discussion groups on occasion. I love the community in it all. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not naïve enough to ignore that things that are regrettable, and sometimes even offensive and harmful, can happen in barrooms also. I’ve seen my share of it. To be fair, those things also happen in churches, youth sports leagues, knitting clubs and any other place people gather. We have our flaws.

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Yet, for the most part, people still seem to want to come together with others. There’s healing that happens in the fellowship of eating, drinking and conversing with others. It’s also a building block to society and personal development that humans instinctively know we need. Even the most introverted person can get lonely. The truth is, sometimes a local “watering hole” is where many will feel the least judged. In the better examples, it’s one of the safest places for a person new to a community or a lonely person to feel the most welcomed.

I’ve worked in the church world for over 10 years. I graduated from a reputable seminary. In my experience, I’ve had some of the deepest and most thoughtful theological conversations with an atheist on a barstool. Want to really hear the hard truths? Talk to folks in a setting like that who churches have harmed. That’s some of the same work Jesus did himself. He seemed to always be within listening distance to those who had been “put out” or “put off” by the religious establishment. 

So, back to my birthday excursion. I ended up sitting at the corner of the bar in Baron’s in downtown Suffolk. I got myself a pint of Guinness and the surf and turf. The plan was to savor each bite of a medium rare steak in solitude, leave a good tip and head home.

But there was “Pete” (I’m not using his real name). A man about my dad’s age, with the fashion sense to wear a good looking “scally cap,” as I often do. He was a few seats down from me. I believe he had only one drink. Then he just sat there. As much as I love observing and often participating in the social aspects of a bar, I really just wanted to enjoy this time alone. Pete really wanted to talk to someone, you could tell that. I’m a bit ashamed of myself that I could recognize it, but didn’t really react to it at first.

Thankfully, someone did. Society has few better at healing lonely hearts than a good bartender, or server. Katrina, working a double that day, appears to be a master at it. She noticed his need to converse and dove right in. Within minutes, he told her about his career as a truck driver and shared some decades-old stories about it. He was even breaking out his phone to show her pictures of the love of his life. My heart finally cracked open when he told of how she passed away. Katrina handled all of this with the conversational compassion that some have to get degrees and work internships to learn. 

I entered the conversation for a little while with Pete. He showed me the flaps inside his cap, though we both agreed they probably wouldn’t do much in a harsh winter wind in the North or Midwest. We talked about a few other things as well, but I don’t remember what. He’s a good guy. I do hope I see him again somewhere. I remember him saying goodbye, and there I was alone again, just as I had planned. Yet, I wasn’t alone again. Seems that my plan wasn’t what the day would bring.  Before I knew it, I was showing Katrina pictures on my phone. We were soon deep in conversation about careers, children and even some theology.

I savored that conversation even more than the pint and the steak. I had thought she was helping Pete heal. It turns out that was only part of the plan for the day. 

I give thanks for Pete, Katrina and a proper pint of Guinness. While I don’t know for sure who the angel was that day, I am certain it wasn’t me. 

The Rev. Jason Stump is pastor of Oakland Christian United Church of Christ in Suffolk. He can be reached at