When online worship no longer felt like a community, a wine club became a ‘wine church’

(RNS) — Steve Inrig has great faith in the gifts of the Spirit.

Especially those found in a bottle of fine wine.

For the past two years, Inrig, a pastor turned college professor and amateur winemaker, has hosted “Wine Church,” an online get-together with friends that mixes the laughter, joy, and tears you’ve come to expect. any drinking circle with the occasional prayer request.

When the band started, Inrig was looking for a way to stay in touch with his friends during the COVID-19 pandemic, believing his love of wine and winemaking was a good starting point. Along the way, the group became something deeper — a sort of pandemic support group and spiritual community.

Saturday Zoom calls, which at their peak drew around 20 people, have been weekly for much of the pandemic. (They recently slowed down to every other week.) It was after one of the couples admitted they had stopped going to church and found spiritual community in group callings that they started to pray together.

“We joked about it,” said Inrig, who is director of a graduate program in health care policy and management at Mount Saint Mary University in Los Angeles. “But over the next few weeks, we found ourselves praying for each other.”

For Jim and Wendy McKinney of Yucaipa, Calif., the wine club helped fill a community need after their church closed and went online during the pandemic. All of a sudden the friendship and social interaction with fellow church members disappeared, Jim said, replaced by sitting on the couch and soaking up the spiritual content being streamed. .

Wines are poured at Steve Inrig’s home in Southern California in preparation for the wine church. Courtesy picture

“It became this fire hose that came your way and you were never able to respond,” he said. “You never had to be on the other side of the conversation. For me, this wine club was actually an opportunity to be able to meet and have a conversation with like-minded Christians.

McKinney, who describes himself as quite a private person, said he was surprised at how close he had become to other band members, most of whom he didn’t know before the pandemic. Now they are good friends.

“I’ve talked about some things in my life sometimes that I never would have talked about, especially with people I’d never met in person before,” he said. “And it’s breathtaking.”

Wendy McKinney accepted. She knew several members of the group before the Zoom calls began — she had been a volunteer leader for a youth group at Trinity Church in Redlands, Calif., when Inrig was youth pastor there decades earlier, and several people on the Zoom call had been part of this group of young people.

But she hadn’t spent time with them in years.

Everything changed when COVID-19 hit. Seeing them every week created deeper friendships than they had in real life before the pandemic.

“When you spend time with other people who are also organizing their lives to devote time to you, you build trust,” she said. ” We laughed. We cried. We have done everything.

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Sharing wine and food together also helped create a sense of community — and introduced the group to spirituality, Inrig said.

He didn’t like wine much until he met his wife, Jula, who had grown up near California’s Napa Valley wine region. They had their first date at a vineyard, and he’s been hooked ever since. Inrig credits German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote about the tangible nature of God’s goodness, and writer Gisela Kreglinger, author of “The Spirituality of Wine,” with helping him see a connection between faith and the grape.

Wine church attendees greet each other at a meeting.  Courtesy picture

Wine church attendees greet each other at a meeting. Courtesy picture

“Drinking wine at its best is like praying,” Kreglinger wrote. “We respond to God by appreciating his gifts and allowing wine to instill in us a sense of wonder, not just for wine but even more so for the generous giver of such a lavish gift. Wine calls us to worship .

Bonhoeffer’s and Kreglinger’s insights, Inrig said, helped him see wine as something more than a commodity to be consumed, a blessing as well as a pleasure.

Most of the members of the Saturday night wine party have ties to Inrig — people he went to church with or people he met at work. Some are in California, others as far away as Calgary, Alberta, or Fort Worth, Texas.

This sometimes made wine selection difficult. Each week, Inrig chooses three wines, then sends a link to wine shops near each member of the group who sell the wine. His choices range from great to just OK. Then there were the Bulgarian wines, which the band members still tease him about today.

For Shannon and Cornelius Austin of Fort Worth, the laughter, wine, friendship and support of wine church calls have been a lifeline in the pandemic. Cornelius Austin, who received a kidney transplant, has spent most of the pandemic isolated at home.

“For me, it’s been friends, it’s been family, it’s been joy and laughter — it’s been the highlight of my week,” Cornelius said.

The group also rallied around the Austins when Cornelius contracted COVID-19 despite all precautions taken by the family, landing him in the hospital and putting his future health at risk.

“We don’t know if he’ll be able to keep his kidney, so it was very difficult,” Shannon Austin said.

Having the wine church group has helped her through those tough times, she said, offering the comfort of having friends who know what’s going on in her life. “It’s a place where I don’t have much to say, but they understand,” she said. The band members became some of his closest friends.

Shannon, who first dubbed the group “wine church,” is the daughter of a Church of Christ pastor and has often fought against organized religion.

The wine church is like the church without the rules. “I have always deeply loved Jesus,” she said. “But I also always hated the rules.”

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