REGULAR GUEST SPEAKER Buckner Fanning
ADDRESS 1281 Gruene Road
ON THE INTERNET gruenehall.com
MAIN SERVICE Second Sunday of the month (except January) at 10:30 a.m. Adults $25, children $12.50
Since Jesus is said to have gotten along well with tax collectors, loose women, wine-bibbers, and gourmets (I’m pretty sure “glutton” is an incorrect translation), I figured it was permissible to attend church at a dance hall. And since the state’s oldest dance hall, in Gruene, has provided a rousing service, complete with food and drink, one Sunday a month for nearly eleven years, the answer to “Where would Jesus go for gospel brunch?” seemed obvious.
Built in 1878, Gruene Hall has not suffered from gentrification. The tin roof, exposed rafters, and fold-down wooden flaps over the screened windows may have been replaced from time to time, but not lately. Floorboard holes, created by decades of boot scootin’, have been patched with license plates and other pieces of tin. High along the walls, original advertising placards recall such venerable institutions in neighboring New Braunfels as Odorless Dry Cleaners (“Charles Kneuper, Prop., Telephone 216”), Blue’s Sugar Bowl (“For Good Eats and Drinks”), and Ringlette Permanent Wave Shop (“Quality Permanents at Reasonable Prices”). At a lower level, an array of beer signs brings to mind Jesus’ alcoholic miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, where he taught us that the Lord loves a cheerful liver.
Mature worshippers predominated on the morning of my visit, but the congregation of 250 or so included a sizable contingent of younger people and a handful of children. Nearly all were in good spirits, aided by an abundant buffet catered by the Gristmill River Restaurant next door and the mimosas included in the $25 admission fee. Instead of pews, we sat at long tables covered with white tablecloths and decorated with ladies’ boots stuffed with bandannas.
The service opened with a brief set by the Gospel Silvertones, a six-member ensemble led by Warren Stallworth, the former shelter director at the Salvation Army in Austin. All the men except Stallworth had at one time been homeless; some had been in prison. When Stallworth discovered at the mission that they had musical talent, he rounded up a few instruments and formed the gospel group. The men first performed at the Salvation Army’s Sunday night services, and as word of their prowess spread, they got invited to other places; they’ve now even appeared at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. As they sang the title song from their new CD, On the Battlefield, the waitresses, girls from the Gristmill clad in straw hats, tight T-shirts, and stunningly brief white shorts, accompanied them with animated line dancing. I found it inspirational.
Bret Graham, who has served as emcee and performer at the service for about ten years, then led the congregation in “I’ll Fly Away” and “I Saw the Light.” He played guitar and mouth harp, accompanied by a small, friendly man on snare drum and a bassist who used to play for the Wimberley Volunteer Fire Ants. Bret then introduced Selina Affram, a nineteen-year-old vocalist who has been a regular at the brunch since she was nine. Dressed in a bright red frock and shoes to match, with a red flower in her hair, Selina sang “Amazing Grace,” occasionally holding a note for so long that it brought astonished applause, which Bret sanctioned by saying, “It ain’t showing off if you’re doing it for Jesus.” She followed that with “Down by the Riverside,” and Bret finished the pre-sermon segment with “On the Wings of a Dove,” whose lyrics reminded us that Jesus was baptized “in the usual way” (which is to say, by immersion, as Scripture commands).
As at most of Gruene Hall’s brunches for the past decade, Buckner Fanning, pastor emeritus of San Antonio’s Trinity Baptist Church, delivered the homily. Wearing black trousers, a large Western belt, a patterned shirt, and a white cardigan, Fanning asked for a show of hands by denominational affiliation. Many did not raise their hand, perhaps an indication that they were part of the “fields white unto harvest.” When close to a third of the assembly admitted to being Baptist, he joked that he planned to tell their pastors that they were at a honky-tonk on Sunday morning.
Obviously, Fanning did not take a hard line against dancing. He spoke of having served in the Marines in World War II, acknowledging that he “did not know the Lord well at the time” and had never heard that dancing was wrong until he enrolled at Baylor University, where he was informed that it would lead him to think about sex. He remembered having replied that, after two years in the Pacific without seeing a woman, he did not need to dance to think about sex.
The heart of Fanning’s homily was the story of a man with a terminal disease who had sought his counsel. The man knew he didn’t have long to live and was deeply worried—with good reason. He had used people selfishly, been unfaithful to his wife, and ripped off his co-workers, and now he was afraid to die. As it happened, he was also a lapidary who collected and polished stones. He told Fanning of a recurring dream in which he was in a field and saw rocks popping up all around, each one bearing the name of a person he had wronged. The dream caused him to wake up in a cold sweat. Then one night the dream had a new element: A pickup drove into the field, and its driver gathered up the rocks and hauled them off. Asked for an interpretation, Fanning told him that Jesus had come into his life and could pick up his “stuff.” “I can’t do it,” he told the man, “and the church can’t, but Jesus has. He’ll pick you up and your life will be different. Answer the call and you will be saved.” The man accepted this explanation and, relieved of his guilt, asked Fanning to tell the story at his funeral and tell people that their names had been on those stones. Fanning recalled how, as he had recounted the man’s dream, people in the sanctuary had gotten up to walk over to others to speak, shake hands, and hug. “It was a moment of forgiveness,” Fanning said. “That’s exactly what Jesus can do. That’s why we call it Good News.”
The service ended with another set by the Silvertones. When they sang “It’s Just Like Fire, Shut Up in My Bones,” they tried, without great success, to generate some spirit in the congregation: “Let me hear you say, ‘Glory’! One more time!” Finally, singer Brian Murphy, a genial man with a great smile, recognized that despite the restrained response, the congregation was clearly enjoying itself, and he gave up, saying, “We ain’t going to force it if it ain’t going to fit.” As a postlude and recessional, “When the Saints Go Marching In” was a fine end to a fine morning.
I am reasonably confident that most folk come to the gospel brunch more for entertainment, quality food, and friendly fellowship than for spiritual wholeness. That said, the old songs have far more content than PowerPointed “praise” music, the Silvertones’ living testimony of redemption warms the heart, and Buckner Fanning can still preach a memorable sermon. If you decide to attend, don’t forget to tip the deaconesses.