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Church growing inside Cave Creek saloon

Pastor Steve Gilbertson sings and preaches every Sunday at the Ecclesia church in Cave Creek. The church meets at the Buffalo Chip Saloon. (KTAR Photo/Bob McClay)

CAVE CREEK, Ariz. -- Many times when you see a news story about something that's happening at a bar, the news isn't good.

But at one Cave Creek watering hole, you can stop by before the place opens on Sunday to hear what many call the "Good News."

That's because the Buffalo Chip Saloon is also the home of Ecclesia, a non-denominational Christian church that locals know as "Church at the Chip."

Pastor Steve Gilbertson said it all started when the Buffalo Chip's owner, Larry Wendt, asked him to come and pray for riders who were participating in Friday night bull rides at the club. When Wendt found out that Gilbertson was looking to start a church in Cave Creek, he offered the bar as a meeting place. And he doesn't charge any rent.

"It's really a blessing," said Gilbertson. "Larry teasingly says ‘You know, Steve, I try to make sinners out of ‘em all week. The least I can do is help you make saints out of them on Sundays.'"

The church is growing. Ten people attended the first service on Easter Sunday 2012. About 50 were there Sunday. Gilbertson said many people are more comfortable here than going to another church.

"By being in a saloon, it automatically communicates that we care about people," said Gilbertson. "You're welcome here."

Dedra Thompson agrees. She comes here for services every Sunday.

"It's just really informal and comfortable," she said. "It's almost like a home-type setting. I think people really feel welcome here."

Cheryl and Doug Johnson feel welcome at the saloon. Doug suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease and Cheryl said the church has helped them through some rough times.

"We were struggling for a while, and were looking for some faith," said Cheryl. "Larry is very uncomfortable around people, so we wanted someplace that was small and intimate and people welcomed him."

Cheryl said that for Doug, the Church at the Chip is just what the doctor ordered.

"The coming to church now for Doug is as much a part of his treatment as his doctors and his caregivers and stuff."

She also joked that "all of our friends are envious that we go to church in a bar!"

Dressed in a cowboy hat and blue jeans, Gilbertson preaches on a stage with brightly lit Coors and Bud Light signs nearby. As the service is going on, bartenders arrive in the back to start getting ready for the bar to open. But the closest thing to alcohol the church goers drink is the juice that's in the cup when they take communion

The church meets at 9 a.m. Services are inside the bar during the hot summer months. It meets outside during the winter because the Buffalo Chip is also known as Cave Creek's "Green Bay Packers" bar. Hundreds of "cheeseheads" show up around 10 a.m. to cheer on their team.

Gilbertson said whether it's inside or outside, Ecclesia is exactly where it should be.

"When Jesus came, he came and clothed himself in human flesh," said Gilbertson. "One version of the Bible says he ‘moved into the neighborhood.' What I think meeting here at the Buffalo Chip does is it affirms our local culture. We're in Cave Creek. We value the things of Cave Creek, and I think people appreciate that."

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About the Author


Years with the company: I started on January 2, 2006.

Education: I was born in San Antonio, Texas, but we moved to Phoenix when I was one-year-old in 1957. I grew up here and graduated from Alhambra High School and attended Phoenix College.

Family: I am married to my wife Rene', who is a librarian in the Washington school district. During free time, I may be found playing basketball in the driveway with my son, Devin. He's also keeping me busy with school, Little League, and playing in chess tournaments around the Valley.

Favorite food: Lots of favorite food, but our favorite restaurant is Fajitas.

Favorite spot in Arizona: The Little America Hotel in Flagstaff.

Favorite news memory: We have to go back to October 15, 1979. I was a country music air personality at KROP Radio in Brawley, California, when we had a 6.7 earthquake. Thankfully, there were no deaths and only minor injuries, but the entire community was pretty freaked out and listening to the station on their transistor radios. I would not want to go through an earthquake again, but it sure was a great night to work in radio and see how it can make a difference in people's lives.

First job: Working as a stringer for 'The Arizona Republic' at high school football games. My first real job was flipping burgers at the old Sandy's Hamburgers at 51st Avenue and Indian School Road. My first radio job was as announcer at KALJ radio in Yuma in 1977.

First concert: Doug Oldham gospel concert in the 1970s at the old East High School in Phoenix.

Favorite sports team: Phoenix Roadrunners minor league hockey. My dad took me to a game when I was in grade school, and I was hooked. I wanted to be a radio hockey play-by-play man. I used to take my cassette recorder and sit up in the rafters of the Coliseum and do play-by-play. It was great later in life to also take my son to Roadrunners games. Too bad the team just folded, I'll miss them. (Going to the Coyotes is fun, but they're not "my" team.)

Outside interests: My family and I are active in our church - Northern Hills Community Church in Phoenix. We enjoy going to movies, sporting events, and like to vacation at the Beach Cottages in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego. And I love to play catch, basketball, football with my son.

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