A State of Church

This story appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.

Sister Louisa was a nun in a convent in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She fell from grace from the church when she fell in love with the convent’s janitor, “Luscious” Lamar Thibideau. Sister Louisa wants you to know that even though she has fallen from the church proper into her airstream where she makes art; she is no less connected to God...maybe more! God bless all who see her art and feel the power of God’s true love. 

- Grant Henry aka Sister Louisa

CHURCH ISN’T A BAR — THERE’S TOO MUCH OF ITS OWNER LINING THE WALLS FOR THAT.

It is, as the cynical and the sincere alike would attest, a place with sharp, irreverent personality, leaping from the seams with Technicolor intensity. It’s opinionated. It’s darkly funny. Both serene, and obscene. It’s an homage to a phase in a series of phases — a brick-and- mortar extension of a guy who started out a middle child, eager to please; who grew up to seek fulfillment in the arms of love and religion; who worked with patients in psychiatric hospitals before partying his ass off for awhile with a ping-pong table and a newly-minted knowledge of mixology; who became an artistic element of urban folklore; and finally, his evolution into a man who, as the medallion around his neck proudly boasts, tells fear to fuck itself. Church is a sacred place — a sanctuary of Grant Henry’s own creation.

And, okay, Church is a bar. A weird, irreverent Atlanta bar with an unusually long, eyebrow-raising name (Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping-Pong Emporium). Take the Pee-wee Herman straddling a cross. Or the cryptic biography of the namesake nun that climbs the staircase (the biography, not the nun, though don’t be surprised). There are the hundreds of wall hangings: paint-by-numbers religious imagery peppered with snarky, bubbly graffiti. Look up, and there’s the roller skate’d, habit-frocked blowup doll wearing a jet-black strap-on. Karaoke is sung in choir robes by PBR-chugging patrons of all ages and social stripes who haven’t stopped coming through the doors since Henry opened the place two years ago. “Every now and then, pretty often, I’ll notice someone who comes into the place for the first time,” Henry says with a devilish guffaw. “They’ll take a couple of steps in and look around. They’ll see something, and they won’t believe their eyes. And they’ll slowly back out. That always makes me smile; it’s so funny.”

Sitting in a beat up dryer chair on the second floor of Church, surrounded by the trimmings of his satire, he looks normal enough. A guy in his 50s with a couple of external eccentricities: a perpetual pair of amber-tinted hornrims; a trucker hat with ‘PRAY’ inscribed in large block letters across the front; the aforementioned silver medallion. There’s a cross on the obverse, “Just in case,” he says.

A LOT OF PEOPLE HATE GRANT HENRY. THEY THINK HE’S A CRAZY MAN: THE PROPRIETOR OF A SINFUL HIVE, OUT TO LAMBASTE ALL THEY HOLD DEAR.

Atlanta is still the South, where a lot of folks don’t take too kindly to making fun of the Lord. Some people in the slowly gentrifying, inner-city borough of Edgewood Church calls home, didn’t want him around at all. But he had come a long way to open this bar.

And, a lot of people love him. His artwork has been greedily scooped up by collectors for nearly two decades, his “Sistine Chapel” of blasphemous kitsch has received praise from the national press and his business has exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations.

Furthermore? He’s actually a really nice guy; a gregarious, opinionated free spirit who has run life’s gauntlet in the search of truth, and who knows? Maybe he’s found it. You see, for better or for worse, Grant Henry is finally happy.

As Henry became settled in his early adulthood, he realized there was an element of truth missing in his life. So he left it all behind and turned to God.

Always a religious person, he began going to seminary. For three years he studied, but in his searching, he failed to find exactly what he was looking for. He just couldn’t buy into it, lock, stock and barrel. It came to a head on his last day. “I couldn’t finish seminary,

because they wanted me to stand up in front of the church and say, ‘Only through Jesus Christ is salvation possible.’ I said to the church leaders, ‘I can’t say that — I would like to change it to say ‘Salvation is possible through Jesus Christ.’ They said, ‘You can’t say that, you’re a Christian!’ But for me, it wasn’t truthful, and I came to seminary to be truthful.”

Then, they said, “It’s only words; just say the words,” Henry recalls — a phrase that stuck with him ever since. “So basically live a lie so I can have a great career. That blew my mind. Words are all there are. If we don’t have words, what do we have? So I left the church.” And with that, a new turn.

“IT WAS HOLLIS WHO GOT ME GOING IN THIS DIRECTION,” HE SAYS.

I was working at a psychiatric hospital before all the bar stuff. We were having lunch, and I looked across the street at this little shop. I said, ‘I want an earring.’ She told me to get one, and I said I couldn’t because I’d probably lose my job at the hospital. She said, ‘That’s not why you don’t get the earring. That’s why you do get the earring. Why would you work for someone who doesn’t let you be yourself?’ That was a new concept for me.”

Henry sips on a double vodka soda, slice of lemon, digressing, “You know, I’ve been bartending for 13 years. When I started, I didn’t even know how to make one of these. I was throwing a lot of parties at my place, so I wanted to learn the basics. I convinced the folks at The Local (a neighborhood burger and brews haunt) to teach me. Customers had to tell me how to make their drinks. Rum and Coke: Take a glass. Fill it with ice. Put in a shot of rum. Top it off with Coke.”

Henry started working the Monday shift, 4 to 7 pm. No danger of offending the regulars or getting caught in the weeds. He began focusing on art as an outlet as well, and had sold enough pieces to make it a “thing.” By his 40s, he had assembled a large collection — nice antiques and weird bric-a-brac alike — to open a curious little antique store. He made a few friends along the way, too: Hollis Gillespie, an Atlanta-based humorist and author, made him a fixture of a weekly column she wrote for an independent news weekly, and as he learned the ropes, and as his on-the-job training at the bar turned into a regular gig, he found himself a bit of a local celebrity.

He traded his steady job for the late hours of a bartender, and fell in love with the new lifestyle. Things finally started coming together. He kicked his work into high gear, and Sister Louisa began to cement her place in Henry’s brain.

“She began as a person I made up to mess around with people who wanted to interview me. I would be asked when someone could meet her, and I would start spinning a story about how she made art in her airstream in Louisiana, because she was kicked out of the convent for messing around with the janitor. But as I made her up, I really started to like the sound of her more and more. She became an alter ego of sorts.”

Ten years go by. Henry’s unlikely journey was starting to come to a head. He decided he wanted to open his own place — one he would decorate out of his antique shop and art studio — and would work the bar. Maybe have some fun conversations along the way in an offbeat place where everyone’s welcome. The neighbors raised a fuss, but Henry didn’t compromise. He didn’t think anyone had anything to be offended about.

“What people don’t realize, is that Church is a church,” Henry says. “It’s not making fun of a church. I value the role of church. I am not a Christian, because a Christian is supposed to pack up their bags and follow Jesus. I’m a nice guy, but I don’t do what you’re supposed to do to call yourself a Christian. But, I love playing with the symbols of what people believe,” he continues. “When you play with the symbols of what people believe, they think you believe them. My art tells more about the person viewing the art, than me. People will ask if I’m a Jesus freak, or an atheist. They have a hard time believing that I’m neither.”

The bar is starting to fill up, and it looks like it’s going to be another busy night. A few people have streamed upstairs for a game of ping-pong, but they take a look around first. One of them points to a doctored image of The Last Supper and calls over her friend to take a look. Henry glances their way with a smirk. First timers.

It’s a Sister Louisa smile. You can just tell. Fictionality aside, the nun who fell from grace is alive and well, drawing on pictures of Jesus in her airstream, and driving the neighbors nuts.

He just had to find the words.