While Tavern Carols might create images of cheerful clinks from frosty mugs at Christmastime, for Mark Mangrem, pastor of Gospel City Church, the program has another goal.
“The purpose is just to introduce us to the community,” he says. While some people may not attend church on Sunday morning for various reasons, “they’ll come to a bar, have a beer and enjoy some Christmas music.”
The church, which now gathers at Pantego Christian Academy, started five years ago with a small group of people who wanted to get out among the community.
“It’s a little light right now,” Mangrem says of the near standing-room-only crowd at Legal Draft Beer Company. “But it’ll pick up.”
As the band sang about Rudolph and Frosty, Legal Draft’s festive bar staff poured on and David’s BBQ provided the catering. Legal Draft is the third Arlington bar to host Tavern Carols since the program’s initial launch several years ago at J. Gilligan’s Bar and Grill. The event typically draws hundreds of people, Mangrem says, and is the Christmas version of Tavern Hymns, which takes place several times each year.
“To see it grow to this, how packed it’ll be by the end of the night is really neat,” says 40-year-old Leah Shepard, a founding member of Gospel City Church who attends with her husband, Ryan, and their two children. “It’s incredible to see people come out to sing hymns where you wouldn’t normally expect a church to be gathering.”
And everyone loves Christmas music, Mangrem says. "Silent Night" is probably everyone’s favorite, but “you sing 'Amazing Grace' and people kind of put down their beers and belt it out.”
“People know hymns for the most part,” he says. "They went to church with grandma as a kid, you know. They know 'Amazing Grace.'”
Steve Graber, who can typically be found singing onstage during Tavern Carols, took the night off from singing to simply enjoy the festivities. He and Mangrem have been friends for 20 years, he says, and he’s been involved with the project from the beginning.
“The organic growth has been crazy,” he says.
The community outreach program has also sparked great discussion among various churches, Graber says.
“I’ve had the discussion with my parents, who fully support the endeavor,” he says. “But they just want to know ‘What are you doing?’”
One of the things Tavern Carols does is partner with a nonprofit during the event, Mangrem says. This year, they partnered with Bikes for Mission Arlington.
“Our goal, this year, is 2,018 bikes for 2018,” says Chris Webb, a volunteer helping field donations.
Tommy Saxon, another volunteer, explained how Bikes for Mission Arlington began 10 years ago when children from one family sacrificed one of their own gifts so other children could have a new bicycle for Christmas.
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“The kids said their favorite thing about Christmas was doing the bikes,” Saxon says.
The concept has since grown. And this year, on Dec. 8, with help from the police and fire departments and hundreds of volunteers, the nonprofit will deliver a roomful of new bikes to Mission Arlington.
Only about 25 percent of those attending Tavern Carols are church members, Mangrem says. The rest are family, friends and coworkers.
“It’s great to see people from the community coming together,” he says.