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Born Again Bar

Once a place for imbibing spirits, The Homestead now serves up a more spiritual atmosphere.

Not long ago, the old Sportsman’s Bar & Grill was a place with a gritty reputation, pouring spirits for the residents of Cascade, Montana, 1.5 ounces at a time. But even taverns can be born again.

In April 2015, the fledgling Canyon Life Assembly of God church bought the two-story downtown landmark. Today, it is the Holy Spirit that flows in a banquet room-turned-sanctuary for about 40 worshippers — and at the church-run, storefront Homestead diner, the homemade caramel rolls and all-beef burgers on fresh-baked buns are favorites.

For Pastor Mark J. Nelsen, preparing Sunday’s sermons and managing the restaurant along with wife, Jessica, are just two sides of the same ministry coin in the Missouri River town with a population of 700.

“The Homestead has been our main outreach,” he says. “The goal is for people to come in for a burger or whatever and also have a God encounter, something as little as seeing that someone cares about them. The Homestead exists for people to experience God, not just food.”

That personal, relational approach brings rewards beyond compliments for a good meal or a nice tip.

“A young single mom recently started coming to church with her three boys because when she came in for the food on a Saturday night, the lady helping her noticed she needed some ministry,” Nelsen says. “It is a great place to help people who would never step into a church.”

Canyon Life regulars take their service to Cascade outside the building, too, participating in several community events. For the past two years, the church has hosted a town barbecue, held in conjunction with the annual August rodeo.

Congregants also are winning hearts with charitable efforts, whether that involves making repairs at the local community center or painting a needy family’s house. However, it’s probably renovating the former bar — a 113-year-old establishment once infamous for illegal gambling, prostitution, and drug trafficking — that has earned Canyon Life the most admiration thus far.

Cleansed with prayer as well as elbow grease, the shabby old building has been transformed both structurally and spiritually. Townsfolk have noticed, offering gratitude, and diners have posted online comments praising the Homestead’s friendly staff, cleanliness, and menu choices.

To make ends meet in the small farming and ranching community, the Nelsens work extra jobs. Mark drives a school bus; Jessica teaches private piano lessons.

Mark, working in the diner one day, struck up a conversation with a man moving to Cascade from Texas. The chat ended with an accepted invitation to church.

“We developed a friendship,” Mark recounts. “We were up in the mountains getting firewood when he had an episode with a chronic severe leg cramp. I had the opportunity to pray for him on the spot, and it went away.” 

The man hasn’t had any discomfort since that incident two years ago. In fact, he had surgery last year to remove the morphine drip that had been installed to help him manage the pain.

Meanwhile, Jessica visited a woman in town who had suffered for more than two decades with horrible hip pain, treated with annual cortisone shots and daily doses of anti-inflammatory drugs. As she prepared to get another cortisone shot, the woman asked Jessica to pray for her. That was over a year ago and she has been virtually pain-free and without the drugs since.

Mary Lemieux, whose duties at the diner range from manager to occasional stints as cook, waitress, dishwasher, barista and janitor, definitely sees faith in all aspects of her work.

"I view all of the work here at The Homestead as unto and alongside the Lord,” Lemieux says. “Anytime we don't get that focus right, things don't go well, but when put Him at the center, there is so much grace."

So far, the church and eatery’s increased visibility in the community hasn’t translated into Canyon Life expanding beyond its three dozen regular attendees.

However, Mark, who relishes the sportsman’s life, sees his ministry in much the same way as cutting firewood for the cold Montana winters, or hunting to fill the freezer with meat to feed family and friends. It’s a process, he says, where felling a tree is followed by trimming and cutting the wood for the stove, or bringing down a deer or elk is followed by skinning, butchering, freezing and then cooking a hard-won meal.

“We view discipleship the same way, as a process, and each part is vital,” he says. “Whether we get to be part of someone hearing about Jesus for the first time, helping them begin their life in Jesus, or helping a mature believer step deeper into their relationship with God, we view all of that as success.”

Robert E. Mims

Robert Mims has been a journalist for more than 40 years, including stints as a news wire service and newspaper writer and editor. He also had done numerous book and magazine assignments as a freelance writer and editor.