Deep Ellum clubs are not supposed to be the place to get closer to God. You might dance yourself clean or, at most, have a drug-induced out-of-body experience, but for the most part these are the havens of excess, depravity and decisions made to be regretted later. But at RBC, which has undergone its own resurrection in recent weeks thanks to the arrival of talent buyer Moody Fuqua from Crown & Harp, religious experiences are par for the course. That's because RBC is also a church.
“I’m a Christian,” says Tammy Moss, one of the venue’s partners. But she was having trouble making it to church on Sundays. Since reopening RBC in the spring of 2014, she typically spends Sunday mornings cleaning up after Saturday nights and preparing to reopen Sunday afternoon. Sometimes she would even drive all the way out to a church in Frisco to see half of a service, but she wasn’t getting the full message.
With no church in Deep Ellum, Moss realized there were others in the neighborhood forced to commute or not attend. But one morning she woke up and realized that her apparent problem might actually be an opportunity: She could bring a church directly to her, as well as the residents of Deep Ellum. “I had to get in the trenches,” Moss says. She shared her thoughts with a friend who just happened to know someone who could make it happen.
Enter Brandon Freeman. A pastor of eight years who grew up in Oak Cliff and Pleasant Grove, he had worked at a few local churches and was looking to start his own with a fresh approach. Freeman visited Moss at RBC and it was immediately clear that they shared the same vision. The two quickly agreed to create a nondenominational church in the venue. Freeman put together a staff, started spreading the word, and had the first service in May.
They named it “I Am Church.” “You hear people say, ‘I am going to church,’” Freeman says. “They associate it with a building. When people go to a church and dislike it, those emotions and feelings are attached to a building or a specific type of religion.” The idea is that church is for people, not buildings. People are the church and they have church. “It takes the relationship aspect and the focus off of you and the building and makes it between you and God.”
Traditional churches are for traditional mindsets. Freeman has some ideas about why many people aren’t going to church in 2016: “Some churches have become all about rules and regulations," he suggests. "Putting it in a different type of place reminds people that God would like to meet them wherever they are, no matter who they are. We want people to feel welcome and a good way to do that is to be in their environment.”
He has a good point. Getting up on Sundays and heading to a traditional church is very different from heading to Deep Ellum. If you enjoy music or art and live in Dallas, you probably visit the area regularly and feel comfortable being there. There is a decent chance you were in Deep Ellum — perhaps at RBC — Saturday night. “All gloves are off when you go to a club,” Freeman says. He thinks the environment helps people relax and let their guards down.
Some have told him it’s not the proper environment and he should think about the message it sends. “It’s not for everybody,” Freeman says, with a shrug. “God called me to the people who don’t care about formalities.” I Am Church is all-inclusive and encourages people to come as they are. You would never guess that Freeman is a preacher and he’s led the church in his jeans. He’s also quite good at it. Regardless of who you are or what you believe, his passion and humor resonates and the crowd enthusiastically responds. The church started with less than 20 people and now there are about 70.
There are kids, many millennials and even a woman in her late 70s among the congregation. Some of them are artists and DJs, some are nurses and working professionals. “It’s a smorgasbord of people from all walks of life who were looking for something different,” Freeman says. “And they have attached themselves to something authentic.”
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The environment at RBC on Sunday mornings is very positive, infectious and energizing. Leading the service, Freeman has an incredible ability to connect with a crowd. He is a great storyteller, frequently making use of body language. His life lessons make people reevaluate their dispositions as they prepare to start the week.
Freeman and his staff show up early to set up the service. It starts at 10 a.m. with greetings and information, especially for new people. At 10:15 there is high-energy and contemporary worship, with a band and sometimes even a DJ. There is a moment of prayer and then Freeman preaches. Then everyone goes home and the bar opens.
“I want to see people from all walks of life,” Freeman says. “I don’t care who you are, where you come from, your economic status or sexual preference. I want you to take something away from this that will make your life better. At the end of the day, when you are living through these words you’ll be able to establish in your own mind what they mean. That’s why it’s called a personal relationship with God.”
Moss looks at things more simply. “It’s my way of giving back,” she says, proudly. She allows the building to be used for free. “Deep Ellum needs a church. And why not in a bar?”