Hymns and Hops proves popular at local brewery

By Scott Swanson
Lebanon Local
Conversion Brewing, on this Tuesday evening, is pretty full.
The Lebanon brewery, known for its summer concert series in next-door Strawberry Park, and for its homey atmosphere reinforced by its wood pizza ovens, is full of music tonight, but it’s not the normal secular fare.
The walls are ringing with hymns, gospel songs – sung by a room full of participants, young and old, seated around the large wood tables, led tonight by a guitarist and a couple of mandolin players and a song leader who’s walking around the room, waving his arms and bellowing the old classics.

MUSICIANS, from left, Meg Custer, Fred Westerhold and Loren Ford accompany the singing.

This is Hymns and Hops, a monthly event founded in the summer of 2018 and a regular stop for local lovers of sacred song until it went on COVID-spurred hiatus in 2020.
“It’s definitely grown in numbers,” said Zane Ridings, the song leader mentioned above, who has pastored Lebanon’s First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) since 2017 and who helped Conversion owner Matt Cowart launch Hymns and Hops.
Ridings, a Salem native, said he arrived in town and got into a discussion with Cowart about the “Beer and Hymns movement” that started in England in 2006, then migrated to the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina in 2012. Since then, the movement has spread across the land, with websites such as beerandhymns.org and www.hymnsandhops.com providing helpful information on how to start local gatherings.
The latter site includes a quotation from well-known late-19th-century Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon: “All places are places of worship to a Christian.”
Ridings said he was familiar with the movement – Portland First Christian was doing a similar event, and he and Cowart saw a Lebanon event as a chance “to present some of the good, the bad and the ugly in church music for people who had been burned by the church movement.”
And, he said, there was an element of just making people aware of the rich legacy of church music that has been drowned out by contemporary sounds used in many houses of worship.
“Matt and I got to talking about it,” Ridings said. “We realized for us the healing component wasn’t going to be quite as important as the educational piece, for people who had never been exposed to gospel music.
“Some older women at church here were complaining that younger people didn’t know these songs, and I’m like, ‘Hey, why don’t we go somewhere where young people like to go.’”
Their first Hymns and Hops, held on the last Sunday evening in August 2018, drew “maybe 30 to 35 people,” Ridings said. “It was a small, intimate event. We had song sheets with four or five songs.”
Pastor Fred Westerhold, of Lebanon’s Christ Community Lutheran Church, was one of them.
“Zane invited me since he knew I played the guitar,” said Westerhold, who’s been in Lebanon since 2014 and who headed the musicians at the most recent event. He invited some members of his church, who showed up with him and his wife, Sheryl.
“I honestly wasn’t sure,” Westerhold said.
As it turned out, people were very interested. Participation ballooned to 60-plus, which prompted organizers to consider whether they needed to find a larger venue, until COVID-19 hit.
“It was standing-room-only,” Ridings said.

ZANE RIDINGS, left, leads a rendition of “Jesus Loves Me” with some help from Atlas Sterling.

A wide variety of churches have been represented, he said, in addition to his and Westerhold’s congregations. He rattled them off: “all the flavors of Lutheran, Southside Church of Christ, St. Martin’s Episcopal; First Baptist, Providence Vineyard, Turning Point, Valley Life and both Lebanon and Sweet Home Foursquare.”
A rotation of musicians lead the events, which include prayer – “we always have prayer, at the start and finish,” Westerhold said – and a wide variety of songs and hymns.
“We want to have a good mix,” Ridings said of the 18-page songbook, which includes traditional hymns like “Amazing Grace,” “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “How Great Thou Art” to gospel favorites like “Victory in Jesus,” “Power in the Blood” and “One Day at a Time,” to children’s favorite “Jesus Loves Me” and various choruses and a few contemporary standards such as “My Chains are Gone” and “Ten Thousand Reasons.”
Every session ends with the old classic “When We All Get to Heaven,” sung at full volume, as are all the selections, led by Ridings, who sings as he walks the room.
“I just enjoy walking around the edge, hearing you sing,” he told the crowd between numbers at the most recent event, noting, “We have not yet sung ‘On the Wings of a Dove.’”
“It’s been a different kind of opportunity for people of different churches, as well as the public, since the pub is kind of family-oriented; kids can be there,” Ridings said later. “It’s a good venue to reach out to families, either church-goers or not.”

PARTICIPANTS clap as they sing an old gospel favorite.

The musicians vary. On this particular night, Westerhold was flanked by Meg Custer and Loren Ford on the mandolin. Judy Stevens, pianist at Lebanon First Christian, often plays and is the one who compiled the song sheets, Ridings said. Other members of the bluegrass band, The Crazed Weasels, of which Ford is a member, have also played.
“I really enjoy playing with Judy,” Westerhold said. “She can improvise and she can play in any key.”
Ridings said he sends out a “roll call” to musicians a few days in advance of each event “and whoever shows up, that’s who we roll with.”
Ridings said one of the outcomes of the event, which has given him personal satisfaction, is that it’s drawn people together.
“One thing that I love is that churches that have split 60, six years ago, are all sitting at the table together, praising God together. That’s something I didn’t even think about.”
He added, semi-jokingly, “I said, ‘Hey, God, here’s a couple of things that can happen with this,’ and God said, ‘Yeah, and here’s about five more that could, too.’”
He said the pub provides a “poetic” ambiance, which lends to the event.
“There’s something about the close, personal writing in some of those longtime southern gospel favorites, something to those songs that just have that indelible quality,” Riding said.
“I’ve found that people enjoy singing the old gospel hymns as well as the new ones,” said Westerhold, who added that the music in his Lutheran church “isn’t the traditional style of congregational worship.”
Since Conversion isn’t open on Sunday evenings following the pandemic shutdowns, the event has been held on the fourth Tuesday of the month since restarting in August. Riding, who is transitioning to pastor a church in Eugene, and Westerhold said attendance was greater on Sunday, “a family day,” and so organizers “will have to figure that out,” noting that “there’s a lot of momentum behind the event.”

Participants follow along in their songbooks.

Conversion, Riding said, with a design as “a family-friendly public house, more than a bar,” provides an ideal setting for Hymns and Hops.
“That was a big part of why we wanted to keep it there so much. It really has that feeling. It’s a cozy place and the community tables are nice.”
For information on upcoming Hymns and Hops, visit bit.ly/3j4JVs6.