A church closure leads to a new call for pastor
By Paul Seebeck | Presbyterians Today
As the Rev. Brent Raska finishes up another order from customers in the states he distributes beer to, he remembers how he felt on Dec. 31, 2017. How he wept after preaching a final sermon at the small church he’d served for five years, which was down to 12 people. “I couldn’t help but think I was a failure,” he said, “even though I knew I wasn’t.”
Although sad in the moment, the closing of Christ Presbyterian Church in North Riverside, Illinois, a suburb west of Chicago, presented the opportunity to pursue a dream born out of his commitment to relational ministry: to open a brewery. Raska, who had been home brewing for about six years, saw the idea as an extension of his call to ministry. He jumped in, believing the brewery would combine all of his passions for high-quality craft beer, fellowship and conversation — along with the opportunity for hospitality and community service.
“I felt like I could still be a pastor, but in a different way,” he said, adding, “a lot of 20- and 30-somethings will walk into a brewery, but not a church.”
When Raska opened with a soft launch on Jan. 1, 2020, his brewery had a community room in the back, with free meeting space for nonprofits and churches. He named his new business venture Burning Bush Brewery, after one of his favorite Bible stories.
“I love that God spoke to Moses in that way, and that Moses was faithful to God and his community,” he said. “People feel comfortable in a brewery, so they naturally ask me about the name, which leads to conversations about their thoughts about God, or faith, that they might not have had otherwise.”
Just a week after the Burning Bush’s grand opening on March 6, 2020, those conversations came to a grinding halt when the reality of the effects of COVID-19 led to an effort to flatten the virus’ curve with sheltering-in-place mandates. Among the things that disappointed Raska was that he had to cancel a book sale in the community room. Proceeds would’ve gone to a nearby Lutheran church. “My head was spinning; we were in survival mode,” he said. “We had to cut expenses.”
Raska let his head brewer go, deciding it was time for him to take that on himself. A fellow brewery owner helped him learn the intricacies of commercial brewing. Another home-brewing friend, Frank Mercadante, learned the commercial side along with Raska, and has been brewing with him since the pandemic. Mercadante also has a ministry background having led a Catholic youth ministry for 30 years. In the process of starting his own brewery, he and Raska laugh about how they’re going back to a pre-Reformation tradition: some of the best and oldest beers in the world were made by monks in monasteries.
Needing to keep income flowing, Raska kept Burning Bush Brewery open for takeout. He also started delivering his beer to some of Chicago’s suburbs.
By summer, he was able to serve many customers on his patio outside, paying close attention to social distancing guidelines. And in the fall, he started canning beers to provide another “to go” option for customers. Raska is now shipping Burning Bush beer to customers in 12 locations: Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington, D.C.
This summer, Raska hopes to start distribution to Chicago area bars, restaurants and craft beer stores.
“It’s been quite the ride,” he said. “We have a good core of regulars in the neighborhood now. Eventually we’d love to have a community service day with them.”
Those regulars, and others becoming familiar with the beers he has on tap, constantly ask him about the stories behind their names. Most on the current list have biblical or church references. A sampling includes:
- Lion’s Den – a hazy IPA, which is Raska’s personal favorite and the brewery’s biggest seller.
- Red Sea – a raspberry kettle sour that is another Raska favorite.
- Broken Bread – an oatmeal stout.
- Double Promised Land – a blood orange and honey double IPA. This home brew gave Raska confidence that he could brew professionally.
- Forbidden Fruit – an apple ale made with 80 gallons of fresh apple cider from Michigan.
- Jonah – a cream ale.
- Heavenweizen – Hefeweizen.
- New Chicago Translation (NCT) – a Czech-style pilsner.
- Pulpit Supply – a pale ale that is Raska’s favorite named beer, “although few people get it,” he said.
- Sermon on the Malt – a mild ale.
- St. Basil – An amber ale with basil. For the first batch, Raska grew the basil himself.
- St. Peter – a peanut butter porter.
- Tree Wrestler – a spruce tip IPA made with real spruce tips from Montana.
Behind the last beer listed, Tree Wrestler, is a personal story. Right before graduating from high school in Spokane, Washington, Raska and two of his buddies were swinging from the top of a tree, trying to get it to touch the ground, when it snapped. Raska still hears the sound of that tree snapping and how it sent him tumbling to the ground.
Raska was the last person who should’ve been in that tree. As a result of being born with a severe club foot, he’d already had five surgeries: as a 2-month-old and 3-month-old, and when he was 8, 10 and 16. He was also born with a hole in his heart and had open heart surgery when he was 2½.
He suffered a compound fracture from that tree wrestling incident. After a titanium rod was inserted into his left leg, it broke off. So, he had to have another surgery to take the rod out.
Raska said he normally doesn’t share this part of his life when he tells the story behind the one beer that doesn’t have some sort of spiritual reference to his customers.
Having spent a significant amount of time at a children’s hospital in Spokane and now raising two girls, Raska said he is grateful for his parents’ support for teaching him how to persevere throughout the years. He is also grateful for his wife, Erin Raska, also a PC(USA) pastor, for weathering many a storm with him in their years together, from the closing of a congregation to the opening of a brewery at the start of a pandemic.
“How wonderful it has been,” he said. “We didn’t make a profit in our first year, but we didn’t have a huge loss, either.”
Perhaps another beer will be in the works at Burning Bush Brewery, one called Faithfulness.
Paul Seebeck is a communications strategist for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
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Categories: Presbyterians Today
Tags: beer, brewery, covid-19, hobby, pandemic
Tags: beer, brent raska, brewery, burning, burning bush, burning bush brewery, bush, bush brewery, church, community room, community service, courtesy of brent, courtesy of brent raska, craft beer, home brewing, ministry, paul seebeck, raska, tree, tree wrestler
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