It was happy hour at Norm’s, and no one ordered chardonnay.
It was tequila shots and Budweiser. The handwritten sign on the wall offered something called a “Pantysnatcher” for $4.
On the juke box, Steppenwolf cursed “The Pusher” for offering dreams but selling death. Gray-bearded men sipping beer at the tables, no doubt, first heard the song in 1968. Today, they seemed more interested in watching Brenda play pool.
Norm’s old-timers remembered when the neighborhood was good. They said their watering hole, just west of the intersection of University and Asher, was now an “oasis” among shops that deal in plasma, cash advances and exotic lingerie.
After dark, things get worse.
Yet, Rita, whom one customer called “the sweetest bartender in Little Rock,” said a few of her patrons have come to appreciate one of the new neighbors — a church in an abandoned Wal-Mart. While unaware if any customers have attended worship services, she knew some of the men who struggle on fixed-income got free groceries and clothing from the church.
It’s called Mosaic, she said.
Mosaic Church of Central Arkansas members know poverty and crime haunt the area. They know some people may enter with beer on their breaths or drugs in their veins. They know people of different colors and heritage would feel like outsiders at other churches.
That is why Mosaic is here, said church founder Mark DeYmaz.
“This is where people need us,” he said. “Our vision is not to merely build bridges out to the community. Our vision is to be the community. This is a physical demonstration of the resurrection of Christ.”
An Arizona native, DeYmaz, 47, said that after seven years as youth minister at Fellowship, he had gained the leadership skills and credibility in the community to serve God in other ways.
He was called to establish what is now one of the most multi-ethnic churches in the nation; fewer than 3 percent of the churches in the nation have such a mix — about 15 percent white, 30 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, and the balance Asian and other, he said.
DeYmaz said the church attempts to be as economically diverse as well; some members come from the Heights, others from homeless shelters, he said.
The pastor said “a unity that respects and celebrates diversity” is a mandate from God for local churches.
“Surely, it breaks the heart of God to see so many churches — in this city and throughout this country — segregated ethnically and/or economically from one another,” the church’s website notes.
When the church began leasing the abandoned Wal-Mart building more than four years ago, it was home to countless cockroaches and critters, but with some cleaning it was a step up from the rural trailer home where the congregation first met, he said.
Weekday visitors to Mosaic are often welcomed by a blind man with a large black poodle. He can explain that space is allocated for food and clothing distribution programs, for an immigration counselor, for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and other programs. Another area hosts Little Rock School District English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
About 30 national or tribal flags — each representing the nationality of current or past members — hang on walls, partitions and curtains.
With about 700 members, the diversity is apparent during Sunday morning services — its audience is a stew of mixed heritage with many inter-racial couples. The diversity also influences the music and messages of each service, DeYmaz said.
In a recent service, DeYmaz told the audience of a white pastor of a Baptist church in Pine Bluff who years ago attempted to invite black neighbors. His idea was not welcomed by the deacons, and that was followed by a visit and veiled threats by local members of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Gentlemen,” the Pine Bluff pastor responded to the KKK. “I’m a hunter, and I can lay down a deer at 300 yards, and my yard is not that big.”
Acknowledging with a smile that it was “not exactly a Christian way” to respond, DeYmaz asked that former Pine Bluff pastor to stand in the audience. The gray haired, slightly bowed man received a standing ovation.
Mosaic members are now being called upon for $4 million to purchase and refurbish a nearby former K-Mart building. In addition to providing Mosaic a newer home, DeYmaz said the church plans to create a “life-enhancing” community center with cafes, shops and an indoor playground.
“We want to help bring the community back to life and create good will and a good feeling in the community,” he said. “We want to inspire economic development and community pride.”