Gather in His name: Parks, tattoo parlors fair game

OCALA – At first glance, the group of young people sitting on a huge sofa and the floor around a coffee table with open Bibles looked like a study group in someone’s living room.

Pastor Michael Beck breaks bread for communion at tattoo parlor study group
Rev. Michael Beck, pastor of Wildwood UMC, breaks bread for communion at a Bible study group in a tattoo shop in Ocala. Photo by Tony DeSantis. 

The parlor wasn’t someone’s home, though. It was the front room of Fat Kats Artistry Tattoo and Piercing Parlor in Ocala, where Pastor Michael Beck of Wildwood UMC holds a quarterly Bible study for his congregants and anyone else who wants to attend.

“We’re trying to take the church where the people are, just as Jesus did,” said Beck, who has served at the small Central Florida church for almost four years.

When Beck arrived at Wildwood UMC, the average attendance on Sunday was 30 to 40 people with almost no children. Now on Sunday mornings, the church draws about 200 people to two services: a traditional one and the more contemporary “New Life” service designed for young families. The younger folks – many sporting tattoos – will tell you that it was Beck’s openness to accept them without judging them that brought them into the church. 

“I always felt people were passing judgment on me whenever I went into a big church,” said Brittany Evans, 29, who initially was reluctant to visit Wildwood UMC with her husband, Jeff. “I believed there was no place in a church for a former drug addict like me.”

Brittany accepted an invitation to go bowling with her husband and several church members about two years ago. When she saw the pastor’s tattoo – and heard about his past as a former addict – she knew he would be more accepting of her. She was baptized a few months later, and at a previous Fat Kats Bible study she had the Methodist cross and flame tattooed on her left arm, something she now uses as a way to initiate conversations with people about her faith and her church. 

Beck, who was abandoned as a drug-addicted baby, has had his own battles with addiction and alcoholism as a young man. He believes it is his “brokenness,” not his righteousness, that brings people to God because they see that through his faith he was able to turn his life around.

Sandra Torchia gets a Methodist cross and flame tattooed to her forearm
Sandra Torchia of Leesburg gets her first cross-and-flame tattoo from artist Dan Loose at Fat Kats parlor in Ocala. Photo by Tony DeSantis.

“The cross-and-flame tattoo on my hand opens the door for me to tell people about my faith and journey,” added Beck. “Tattoos of Christian symbols are often used as evangelism tools.”

That is the case for Wildwood UMC members D.J. Wenzel, 60, of The Villages and Sandra Torchia, 71, of Leesburg. The women attended the tattoo ministry Bible study not only to get tattoos but also to show support for the tattoo ministry. 

“For me, it’s a symbol and profession of my faith,” said Wenzel, who was first in line to get the cross-and-flame logo tattooed on her ankle. “I hope people will ask me about it at the pool, and it will be a way to open a conversation about my church.”  

The new symbol on Torchia’s arm is something she hopes will help her reach new and young Christians who are searching for ways to talk about their newfound faith.

“I say to them, ‘Don’t wait to be a witness for the Lord, and certainly do not wait until you’re 71,’” she explained. “Don’t worry about what to say; the Holy Spirit will be the witness and tell you what to say.” 

Torchia and other Wildwood UMC members embrace Fresh Expressions, an international Christian movement that seeks to create "fresh expressions of church" in places outside the traditional church setting. When Beck noticed how many of his younger members had tattoos, he came up with the idea for meeting in a tattoo parlor. 

“I wondered how we could use the tattoo culture for Christ and as a means of grace,” said Beck. 

One of his Wildwood UMC members put him in touch with tattoo artist Dan Loose. The artist took the idea to Fat Kats owner Brian Purdy, who offered the front room of his 13-year-old business for the group in the summer of 2014.

“We like having them here,” said Purdy, who waited on regular customers coming in and out of his shop as the Bible discussion was underway.

In the past, as many as 40 people have participated. This past Sunday, about 17 people came, with 13 of them electing to get new tattoos. 

Pastor Michael Beck offers communion sacraments to Nancy Ortiz in Ocala downtown square
Wildwood UMC Pastor Michael Beck offers communion sacraments to Nancy Ortiz in a downtown square outside the tattoo parlor where Beck conducts quarterly Bible studies. Photo by Mary Ann DeSantis.

Beck began the gathering with prayer and a reading from the gospel of John. Questions and discussions about the meaning of Advent followed. The only difference between this study and one in a traditional venue was that participants would discreetly go one by one to a private room for the 20- to 30-minute tattoo application. 

The study ended with communion. Beck and his flock then crossed the street into Ocala’s main square, where the pastor offered Eucharist to people who were enjoying a sunny afternoon in the park, including Ocala resident Nancy Ortiz. 

“I missed church this morning, so this is great,” said Ortiz, who was surprised to hear about a Bible study in the nearby tattoo parlor. 

When a homeless man approached Beck to see what was happening, he too was offered communion. The pastor noticed that the man had an open wound on his foot, and he called to Torchia, a retired nurse. She got bandages from the parlor and administered first aid to the man. 

“That’s the kind of thing that happens when you bring the church to the people,” Beck said. 

Wildwood UMC has a full slate of events and studies, but Beck is always looking for other venues where he can share God’s word. On Sunday evenings, he presides over “Burritos and Bibles” at Moe’s Southwest Grill in Lady Lake, and beginning in 2016 his newest Fresh Expression will be a “Bread of Life” gathering at Panera Bread in The Villages. 

"For a long time the church has operated under the false assumption if we build our buildings big enough and have enough programs, people will come to us. That model doesn't work in this generation, as we can see [from] the continued massive decline of Christianity in the U.S.,” Beck said in an email following Sunday’s gathering.

Like Jesus and the early Christians, he added, “We also have to find ways to go and be the church where the people are. We must engage the culture and transform it in His name."

Fresh Expressions Florida Facebook logoFlorida Fresh Expressions US

Fresh Expressions US, in partnership with Fresh Expressions Florida, will hold simultaneous Vision Day events Saturday, Nov. 21, at four locations in the Florida Conference: Cape Coral, Orlando, Gainesville and Fort Lauderdale. Click here to register.

The one-day interactive learning experience is designed to inspire and equip individuals, church leaders and denominational executives to pioneer new ways to be the church. The program includes discussion of what it means to be a mission-shaped church and offers tools for starting a Fresh Expressions worship community in your area.

To read a report on a recent Fresh Expressions Vision Day, click here. To access a series of blogs about Fresh Expressions by Florida Bishop Ken Carter, click here.

– Mary Ann DeSantis is a freelance writer based in Lady Lake.

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