Show up to Witness on Capitol Hill at 10 p.m. on a Saturday, and you will hear a bartender deliver a sermon.
Owner and bartender Gregg Holcomb is not a preacher. He’s not religious. And every time his staff hushes the crowd so he can kick off the 5- to 10-minute homilies that have become a ritual for regulars, Gregg opens the same way: “Brothers and sisters, can I get an Amen? Can I get a motherfucking AMEN?”
Gregg’s given more than 150 weekly sermons since he opened Witness in August 2013. They’re about everything: Sex, racism, fear, judgment. For listeners, there are two rules: You can’t talk over him. (He will call you out.) And you have to have “an open heart and an open mind.” (Or at least, he’ll ask you to try.)
Gregg drew inspiration for Witness on 9/11. After watching the news at home in Capitol Hill, he and his girlfriend went to a coffee shop and talked – with the baristas, with neighbors, with everybody. It made him want to make a space where people could be real with each other all the time.
Witness is that space. Gregg has family roots in the South and loves the warmth of Southern hospitality and church culture. So he treats his bar as a community, and his customers as friends.
“When somebody comes in I’ll just walk up and say, ‘Hey, how’re you doing?’ They’ll say, ‘Two, please.’ And I’ll say, ‘No, no, no, I asked how you’re doing.’”
He was nervous when he gave his first sermon. Once, a customer who didn’t want to stop talking and listen got his check and left. Today, Gregg thinks about a third of his 10 p.m. crowd is there to listen to his sermons.
Some of Gregg’s preachings are lighthearted. Others are intense. A series on the seven deadly sins took him 15 to 20 hours to research. He scraps his planned sermons when he needs to talk about something raw and important. Like when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed. Or when a friend of his wrote a Facebook post about being harassed on her way home from work.
One time Gregg opened up about how he wanted to overcome an internal bias against people who are transsexual and become a better ally.
Each of Gregg’s sermons has a moral message, but his purpose is bigger than that.
“You’ve only got one shot. One bite on this life thing we have,” he said. “Are you doing what you can to make it yours?”
Want to listen to Gregg’s latest Saturday sermon? Here it is, narrated by Evergrey cofounder Monica Guzman.
This story originally appeared in the Oct. 26 edition of The Evergrey newsletter.