Grant Henry comes to Jesus
Atlanta bar ‘Church’ provides a different kind of haven
About 25 years ago, Grant Henry had one of many come to Jesus moments.
And that moment led eventually to who he is now — owner of the popular bar, Church, located on Edgewood Avenue in the Old Fourth Ward.
It is at Church that Henry’s alter ego Sister Louisa hangs her hundreds of religiousthemed paintings, while a mannequin dressed as a nun, representing Sister Louisa, swings from the ceiling with her junk peeking out of her underwear. But back to the mid 1980s. Henry was the deacon of the First Presbyterian Church in Marietta at the time. He was married to a woman 15 years his elder, who had two children. He was making big bucks as a salesman. And as a member of the church, he was learning that being a serious Christian meant following serious rules.
In 1986, the church rented an apartment, furnished and decorated it, and wanted to give it to a poor family. So Henry, who sold insurance and benefit packages to major companies at the time, drove to the home of a family in need to offer them free housing for a year.
“I was just coming from an appointment where my commission was going to be like $40,000. I had a new Mercedes, a three-piece suit, and I’m buying into this, ‘We’re going to do something for you, you poor people,’” he recalled.
Henry talked to the grandmother, the head of the household where some 13 people were living in one small apartment, and offered the new, bigger home and help for people to find jobs.
“The woman looked at me and said thank you very much. There are probably a lot of families who need this home, she said, but we have Jesus so we are fine,” he said.
Henry climbed back into his car and was driving on I-75 when he said he had to pull over because he was crying so hard.
“Here she was, willing to live with the consequences by telling the truth. And I was so fucked up. I had given up an authentic life to make everyone around me happy,” he said.
Henry said he drove home, told his wife he had to leave, and drove to Florida, visiting the hospital where he was born, the houses he grew up in, and the colleges he attended.
He came back to Marietta after a week and told his wife he wanted a separation. He was 29.
‘They’re only words’
That conversation with that grandmother led Henry to attend Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. He furthered his education at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, where he was set to be ordained as a minister.
All he had to do was say, “Only through Jesus Christ is salvation possible.”
But Henry felt he couldn’t say those words truthfully — he knew there were people in the world who didn’t know about Jesus, and those who received some kind of salvation through another path.
His teachers told him that he was a great preacher, he would gain a large church, his children would receive a great education. He could even have a beach house. All he had to do was say those words. “They’re only words,” they told him. “And I looked at those people and it just resonated to me, ‘They’re only words.’ I went to seminary because of these words this woman said. I couldn’t say those words, so I left the church.”
Back in Atlanta, Henry opened an antique shop in East Atlanta and began collecting tacky Jesus paintings. They didn’t sell, but he was drawn to the paintings and hung them everywhere in his store.
One day, local writer and humorist Hollis Gillespie walked in, loved everything he had in his store and asked Henry to decorate her home in the Telephone Factory Lofts. The two became close friends and he became a character in Gillespie’s Creative Loafing column, where he was often identified as gay.
He acknowledged that shortly after exiting seminary when he was in his 40s, he began dating an Episcopal priest who was almost 20 years older.
“We had so much in common and I had never felt this way for a man,” Henry said of the priest he dated.
Today, Henry is not in a relationship but says he can have sex with women and men. He doesn’t like the word bisexual, however.
“Maybe I’m an opportunist,” he said with a laugh.
It was during the 2000s that Henry, armed with oil paint markers purchased from Office Depot, began writing on the many Jesus and other kitschy paintings he had accrued over the years. “Nothing harder than a preacher’s dick” and “Higher the hair, closer to God” became popular sayings. And Sister Louisa gained a following.
Henry opened Church — officially, Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium — in 2010 after working a decade at The Local on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta. Some people enjoy the art while others will walk in the bar, look around, and then slowly back out, Henry said.
The bar is performance art, Henry explained. And the sayings are, simply, just words.
“My art doesn’t tell anything about me, but it does tell something about the person who sees the art,” he said.
Grant Henry, 56, opened the bar Church in the Old Fourth Ward in 2010 and has no problem filling the pews. (Photo by Dyana Bagby)