(RNS) — Steve Inrig has great faith in the gifts of the Spirit.
Especially those found in a bottle of good wine.
For the past two years, Inrig, a pastor-turned-college professor and amateur winemaker has been hosting “Wine Church,” an online meet-up with friends that mixes the laughter, joy and tears you’d expect from any drinking circle with the occasional prayer request.
When the group started, Inrig was looking for a way to stay connected with friends during the COVID-19 pandemic, figuring his love of wine and winemaking made for a good starting point. Along the way, the group became something deeper — a kind of pandemic support group and spiritual community.
The Saturday Zoom calls, which at their height drew about 20 people, were weekly for much of the pandemic. (They’ve recently slowed to every other week.) It was after one of the couples admitted they’d stopped going to church and found spiritual community in the group calls that they began to pray together.
“We joked about it,” said Inrig, who is the director of a graduate program in health care policy and management at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles. “But over the next few weeks we found ourselves praying for one another.”
For Jim and Wendy McKinney of Yucaipa, California, the wine club helped fill a need for community after their church shut its doors and moved online during the pandemic. All of a sudden, the friendship and social interaction with fellow church members was gone, said Jim, replaced with sitting on the couch and absorbing streamed spiritual content.
“It just became this fire hose that came at you and you never got to talk back,” he said. “You never got to be on the other side of the conversation. For me, this wine club was actually an opportunity to be able to talk back and have a conversation with some like-minded Christians.”
McKinney, who describes himself as a fairly private person, said he has been surprised by how close he has gotten with other group members, most of whom he did not know before the pandemic. Now they are dear friends.
“I have at times opened up about some things in my life that I never would have opened up about, especially with people I had never met before in person,” he said. “And that’s stunning.”
Wendy McKinney agreed. She knew several group members before the Zoom calls started — she had been a volunteer leader for a youth group at Trinity Church in Redlands, California, when Inrig was a youth pastor there decades earlier, and several people on the Zoom call had been part of that youth group.
But she had not spent time with them in years.
That all changed when COVID-19 hit. Seeing them every week created deeper friendships than they had had in real life before the pandemic.
“When you spend time with other people that are also gearing their lives to make time for you — you develop trust,” she said. “We’ve laughed. We’ve cried. We’ve done it all.”
Sharing wine and food together has also helped create a sense of community — and brought an awareness of spirituality to the group, said Inrig.
He did not have much appreciation for wine until he met his wife, Jula, who had grown up near the wine country of Napa Valley, California. They had their first date at a vineyard, and he has been hooked 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.
“Drinking wine at its best is like prayer,” Kreglinger wrote. “We respond to God by enjoying his gifts and allowing wine to instill within us a sense of wonder, not just for the wine but even more for the generous giver of such a lavish gift. Wine calls us to worship.”
Bonhoeffer’s and Kreglinger’s ideas, 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 people in the Saturday night wine group have ties to Inrig — people he used to go to church with or folks he has met in his work. Some are in California, others are as far away as Calgary, Alberta, or Fort Worth, Texas.
That has made picking out wines a challenge at times. Each week, Inrig chooses three wines and then sends out a link to wine shops in each group member’s vicinity that carries the wine. His choices have run from the great to the just OK. Then there were the Bulgarian wines, about which group members tease him to this day.
For Shannon and Cornelius Austin of Fort Worth, the laughter, wine, friendship and support of the wine church calls have been a lifeline in the pandemic. Cornelius Austin, who received a kidney transplant, 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 the highlight of my week,” said Cornelius.
The group also rallied around the Austins when Cornelius got COVID-19 despite all the precautions the family took, landing him in the hospital and putting his future health in danger.
“We don’t know if he will be able to keep his kidney, so it’s been really tough,” said Shannon Austin.
Having the wine church group has helped her navigate those hard times, she said, offering the comfort of having friends who know what is happening in her life. “This is a place where I don’t have to say much, but they understand,” she said. Group members have become some of her closest friends.
Shannon, who was the first to dub the group “wine church,” is the daughter of a Church of Christ pastor, and she has often struggled with organized religion.
Wine church is like church without the rules. “I always loved Jesus deeply,” she said. “But I’ve also always hated rules.”