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Church buys bar, serves up different kind of spirit

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COVINGTON, Ky. (BP)–At an age when most people are thinking of retirement, Harold Pike still rides a motorcycle to work, plays basketball and tennis, and works out twice a week.

But it’s not just the 65-year-old pastor’s energy that keeps him going. He has vision. The kind that persuaded him his church would acquire the bar next door, even though it took 33 years.

Every few months since 1967, the pastor of South Side Baptist Church laid hands on the Salty Dog Saloon. He prayed that they would get the building, often saying, “God, I don’t know when you’re going to do it, but I know you will.”

Last spring, those prayers were answered. Today, the church is moving forward with plans to turn the old bar into a ministry center. It will feature a variety of classes, activities, family events, job training and a coffee house.

“God did it,” said Pike, whose hopes of acquiring the bar in 1973 fell through when the owner raised the price. “And he did it in his timing. I’m learning a lot about God’s timing.”

As in all situations, it was perfect.

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The story dates back a few years, when the Kentucky native’s niece and her husband were visiting from Alabama. The pastor joked about how badly he wanted to buy the adjoining bar.

A few weeks later a check arrived from Tuscaloosa. The $100,000 donation was earmarked for the bar’s purchase.

“I almost had a heart attack,” he recalled. “I had never seen a check with zeros that big.”

But that didn’t seal the deal. The owner still refused to sell.

Then, Pike decided to get to know them. Last year, he started stopping in the bar periodically to sip coffee and talk with the man and his wife.

When those overtures didn’t change his mind, the pastor gave up. He asked his niece if she minded if they shifted the money to a long-awaited elevator installation.

But five days before a special business meeting to vote on shifting the funds’ use, the bar owner called.

He explained the night before his wife, “who is not a church woman,” insisted he close the bar on Sunday. He resisted, saying it was the most lucrative day of the week. She told him if he couldn’t close it that he should sell it. He was offering it to the church for $111,500.

Although the special donation was drawing interest, Pike wanted to use the dividends for repairs. So he came up with another idea, asking the bar owner to give $10,000 to the church. He told the man the money would be worth more as a tax deduction than a capital gain.

After consulting a tax advisor, the owner did that. The congregation raised the remaining $1,500 the following Sunday. On Apr. 1, the church took title to the property.

“We had a good laugh about it, a good cry about it and praised the Lord,” the pastor said. “What’s so unique is God’s timing. If people had voted to build that elevator, they wouldn’t have been near as anxious to buy a bar.”

Although volunteers have put in a drop ceiling and scrubbed away years of smoke damage, one feature will stay. A solid walnut bar remains in place as a reminder of the past.

“I want to serve some right stuff over that bar,” Pike said. “The wrong stuff was served over it for too many years.”

That idea sits well with Dennis Northcutt, a member of the maintenance staff who has been spearheading the renovation effort.

A former employee before he lapsed back into his longtime bout with alcoholism, he rededicated his life to Christ and rejoined the staff May 11. He joked that it’s fitting he works in a bar after spending so many years in one.

“When people walk in the place it makes me feel good and it makes them feel good,” he said. “This is going to be a tremendous ministry. The fulfillment in life is here now.

“You’d have to be here to understand the impact,” he added. “I see (former customers) all the time, standing across the street. It’s hurt ’em. This was their home, like it was mine.”

Longtime church members are also overjoyed about the new El Ji Moore Activity Center, named after the generous donors, Elaine and Jimmy Moore.

“I feel like it’s an answer to prayer,” said Win Gover, a member for 29 years. “Instead of being used as a tool for the devil, it can be used for the Lord now.”

He sees the center as a way of attracting inner-city residents who shun churches. Such folks will feel more comfortable in a casual setting than a sanctuary, he said.

This isn’t the first time God has worked in miraculous ways at South Side, noted longtime financial secretary Donna Cox.

She recalled how the church was able to buy property for a parking lot and playground in 1986 after local homeowners who vowed to never sell changed their minds.

“We had lots of prayer meetings and that was always a subject of discussion,” Cox said of the bar. “I think it’s great.”

She also lauded Pike, commenting that not many pastors would stay with a church in a low-income neighborhood for so long.

“For 33 years he’s been here and that’s one of the visions he had,” she said. “He held true to these visions. If he hadn’t been here, we might have been one of those inner-city churches that closed down.”
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(Editor’s Note: A sidebar titled, “Former bar patrons belly up to new community center,” appeared on Dec. 20, 2000.)