More than a quarter of a century after dropping out of Christian seminary and taking his spiritual leadership to New York City bars in the form of gospel music, Reverend Vince Anderson’s story is finally being told.
On Friday, a documentary about the rock ‘n’ roll reverend—who many Brooklynites know from his current 12-year music residency with band The Love Choir at Williamsburg venue Union Pool—will have its New York premiere.
The Reverend, from Brooklyn director Nick Canfield, tells the yet-untold story of how Anderson turned from seminary drop-out, to a celebrated gospel musician with the extraordinary accolade of having played a weekly show in the city for more than two decades.
“I’m happy that, somehow, this thing we’ve done for the past 25 years has got documented in a beautiful way,” Anderson told BK Reader, speaking from a leafy sunroom in his Ridgewood home a few days before the premiere at IFC Center.
In that time, Anderson has also become a respected spiritual leader who has traveled the country to convince white Christian evangelists not to vote for Trump.
Anderson is not your typical Christian ordained minister. He wears a striped kaftan with a deep v-neck exposing a tattooed chest, bare feet, a grey beard, and his long hair is slicked back behind his ears. He’s also known for getting naked at his shows.
In his home, plants hang in every available alcove, alongside music posters, a piano and well-worn piano stool, a salt-and-pepper shaker collection, bowls of fresh tomatoes, a wall stacked with records and an adequately-stocked bar.
As he tells the story of how he first moved to New York City from Fresno, California, in 1994 to study at the progressive Union Theological Seminary, Anderson rubs the belly of his elderly dog, Hudson.
When Anderson arrived in the Big Apple, he had a vision of starting his own church, he explains.
“It was a church where freaks and artists—people like me—were welcomed, not just tolerated, as well as people of all beliefs,” he said.
“I felt like the church should be a place where people can hash out their beliefs, rather than necessarily ascribing to one.”
But something didn’t feel right. His body started to tell him first. He developed a persistent twitch in his leg that doctors couldn’t explain. A friend suggested his leg probably “just wants to dance.”
Then, on Jan. 6, 1995, Anderson attended a service for the Christian ‘Epiphany Day’ at The Riverside Church in upper Manhattan. That day, Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr. was preaching a sermon on how everyone has a calling.
“I felt like he was preaching directly to me,” Anderson recalls. Afterwards, when he went to take communion, Rev. Forbes Jr. passed him the host and told him that, whatever he was going through, God was on the other side.
“And that day I withdrew from seminary. I don’t claim to have heard the voice of God, but in that moment, I did,” Anderson said.
After dropping out of seminary, Anderson leaned into another love found in church: gospel music.
“All I knew how to do, really, was sing gospel. So my friend got me a gig at a bar, and that’s what I started doing.”
Because of the genre, people started calling him “The Reverend,” without even knowing his religious background. A bartender scrawled the name in quote marks on a chalkboard outside, to advertise, and the name stuck.
The shift in what Anderson had come to New York to do revealed something. He didn’t need to be in a church in order to serve.
“I realized the congregation I wanted to serve was always right in front of me. I didn’t need a church, they were my church. In a very true sense, they ordained me. I rose up in that community.”
Soon, people started asking Anderson to marry them, baptize their kids, bury their dead. Over the past 25 years, Anderson has done at least 250 weddings, he said. As a spiritual person, the reverend says his view has always been about recognizing the humanity in himself and others. “I’m a Christian humanist, if there is such a thing.”
At the same time, he became embedded in the thriving New York City music scene of the 90s. He’s had residencies at First Street Cafe, Bar on A, the Avenue B Social Club, Stinger Club, Pete’s Candy Store and Union Pool, to name just a few.
“I went from seminary to rock n’ roll in the East Village in the mid-90s, and I really lived that life. It was rough-and-tumble there for a while,” he laughs.
His shows are described by some as a spiritual experience. Anderson writes his own music, as well as covers other gospel songs. He says sometimes the band reaches a place where it feels transcendent, like floating: “I call it the Holy Spirit.”
Over the years, he’s come to refer to both his theology and his music as “dirty gospel.” “Gospel means truth… I believe in a theology that needs to roll around in the mud.”
While Anderson has an extraordinary story that other filmmakers have tried to tell before, he’s had a few bad experiences, and it took him some time to really open up to Canfield, he said. The pair first met in 2015, and the film was shot over a period of about four years.
Originally, Canfield was one of Anderson’s many regulars. “I’d been going to see him for seven or eight years at Union Pool,” he said.
“I was always amazed by the power of his performances. It’s people from all different walks of life having a spiritual experience in a bar. Old people, young people, Atheists, Christians, Jews, everybody. I wanted to flesh it out more.”
Canfield got in touch with “Moist” Paula Henderson, The Love Choir saxophonist, who connected him with Anderson.
“He trepidatiously agreed, but it took him about a year to open up to me,” Canfield recalls.
However, seven years later, when he finally showed him the finished product, the reverend liked it. So much so, that he is putting out a soundtrack album to go with the film. He also plans on touring with the film as it hits other cities in August and September.
The Reverend is showing for a one-week run in New York beginning July 22 at IFC Center, 323 6th Ave.