MANATEE COUNTY — In some ways, the barroom has become a second home for Christian Retreat Pastor Phil Derstine.
He still dislikes the stench of cigarettes and stale beer that lingers in the air there, but Derstine has found it’s often a gathering place for the broken-hearted.
And that’s exactly where he wants to be.
This Christmas Eve, he and several teams of volunteers will head out to area bars and hospitals to spread holiday cheer and demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ by singing Christmas carols. It’s the 25th anniversary for the unique Christmas program.
“It’s a real attempt to touch people with a real demonstration of love,” Derstine says. “We just want to let them know there’s hope and faith.”
Years ago, Derstine was flying home from a missionary trip in Honduras when he heard God speak: “Take my Word to the streets of your city.”
Derstine, who had lived a fairly sheltered life as a pastor’s son, took the words to heart although he didn’t understand what they meant at the time. But within weeks, God showed him. A police officer at the church offered to show him the streets of the city at night “when good people like you are in bed sleeping.”
“He showed me things I’d never seen before,” Derstine remembers.
Drugs. Homelessness. Prostitution.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I saw so many hurting people.”
With a grieved and compassionate heart, Derstine began to leave the safe walls of the church and go out to the hurting.
“I often sat in bars to talk to people,” Derstine says. “Bars are a lot like churches. (People) go to talk to people and find friendship. Bartenders are a lot like pastors — they know everybody’s names and provide counsel.”
Dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and clutching a soft drink in a can or bottle, Derstine would strike up conversations with others there or simply wait until someone began to share.
“I started doing karaoke,” Derstine says. “The thought came to me: Why not bring carolers into the bars?”
That was 25 years ago this Christmas Eve.
“The thing that surprised me most was how well we were received,” he says. “People recognized we were giving up time with our families on a special day of the year.”
Derstine himself is a soft-spoken man, but there’s nothing timid about this night of caroling. The pastor and accordion player charges into each bar with a mighty “Merry Christmas” before asking the bartender or owner for permission to bring his group in to sing carols. Once he gets the OK, the rest of the singers enter in the same fashion. In just moments, they are asking for lights for the candles they hold.
“I tell them to capitalize onto their strengths,” he says. “Good singers sing loud. Bad singers sing soft. If your music is better, play louder. (Patrons aren’t) looking for quality of music, they are looking for people.”
The jukebox gets turned back on just moments after the final song ends, in many cases, but carolers take time to mix with patrons, learn about their needs and offer prayer.
Before they leave, they also offer patrons a booklet of Scriptures on comfort, assurance and salvation if they’d like it.
“We wrap it in Christmas paper and a candy cane,” Derstine says. “We tell them what’s in it.”
Fruits of the labor
The memories from the last 25 years are so vivid — and numerous — Derstine throws back his head trying to think of them all —like the time an older gentleman followed the group out and begged them to sing just two more songs. It was his first Christmas without his wife.
Or the time he and his group walked into a bar full of Spanish-only speaking patrons. The owner, who spoke some English, agreed to let the carolers in.
“We sang ‘Feliz Navidad’ for a really long time,” Derstine says with a chuckle.
After that performance, one man ran after Derstine, telling him about some personal hardships.
“He said, ‘You came here tonight for me — not anybody else,’” Derstine says. “(Our team) prayed for him. That makes it all work for me.”
Some patrons get so into the holiday spirit, they get in their vehicles and follow the group to their next bar stop, where they help rally enthusiasm for the carolers as they come in.
And now after so many years, most of the bars now know Derstine or one of his groups will be coming to spread their Christmas cheer. Sometimes, however, they still stumble across new bars along their routes, often stopping there as well.
“Christmas Eve can be a sad time for people when they don’t have family,” Derstine says. “We found it was an important time of the year to show the love of Christ.”
Derstine heads to his office closet, where he pulls out the accordion his father gave him when he was 10 years old. It doesn’t take long before his fingers begin to flicker across the keys, causing a smile to erupt on his face as a song bursts into the air.
The instrument comes out just this one time of year, and Derstine can’t wait.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].