Grant Henry comes to Je­sus

At­lanta bar ‘Church’ pro­vides a dif­fer­ent kind of haven

GA Voice - - Ga Voice - by Dyana Bagby | dbagby@the­gavoice.com

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.

An­other ‘Church’

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)

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