A jubilee is a celebration, particularly one that commemorates a special event. That makes it the perfect term to describe what will take place at Asheville’s very own Jubilee! Community this August. After three decades of music, service and more dad jokes than any one man should be allowed to tell, the downtown fixture’s beloved minister, the Rev. Howard Hanger, will celebrate the church’s landmark 30th anniversary by retiring from the spiritual community he created.
“I feel like I’ve overstayed my welcome, actually,” Hanger says with a laugh. “But it feels so good, and I know it’s time. It’s time for new blood to come into Jubilee! and it’s time for me to do something else.”
The church will then welcome incoming minister Amy Steinberg, who will guide the community as it begins a new era.
Sock it to me
Those attending a Jubilee! service may walk away with a sense of spiritual fulfillment, a tune they can’t stop humming or a new joke to tell a friend. Equal parts musician, philosopher, visionary and entertainer, the 75-year-old Hanger says his vision for Jubilee! was born of a desire to defy what he felt were the rigid attitudes and norms of his United Methodist upbringing.
“When I was getting ordained, there were seven guys up there — at that point it was all men, all dressed in black, that were doing the ordination — and none of them looked like they were having a good time,” Hanger recalls from the porch of his historic home nestled in Asheville’s Chicken Hill neighborhood. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to grow up like those guys,’ and so I made a vow to try not to take myself too seriously.”
Today, all Hanger has to do to remind himself of this principle is look down.
“My socks became my mantra,” he explains, eagerly pointing to his brightly colored sock-and-sandal combo. “I’ve worn mismatched socks since then to remind myself not to take myself too seriously.”
Meanwhile, years of conservatory training had left Hanger with a healthy appetite for music and the arts. A singer and pianist, the Fort Lauderdale native formed several bands and became a commercial success, producing a number of albums and founding Jazz Fantasy, a musical performance and recording company. After some years spent touring with his band, Hanger decided to settle in Asheville in 1973. While on staff at downtown’s Central United Methodist Church, he began envisioning a different kind of venue where he could merge his twin loves: music and spirituality.
“I wanted a place that was spiritual but wasn’t religious. I wanted a place where people who didn’t like church would feel comfortable,” Hanger recalls. In the 1980s, he started leading “Jubilee! Celebrations” in the church’s basement, but as the momentum built, so did the desire for a separate home.
When he’d first seen the unassuming structure at 46 Wall St., it was the site of the lively Asheville Music Hall. At its height, the club had hosted the likes of The Byrds and John Prine. But the early ’80s economic downturn had hit hard and the club had closed, becoming just one more boarded-up downtown building that quickly fell into disrepair.
“Oh, my God, it was a mess!” he remembers. “I really thought, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ But it had good vibes. It had a lot of good vibes.”
Despite the lingering smell of stale beer, tattered ceilings and flies that had taken up residence, Hanger says he knew it was the proper home for Jubilee!.
When Jubilee! Community finally opened in 1989, Hanger had a central message for his congregation: “We don’t worship — we celebrate.”
Hanger’s services were tapestries woven out of music, performance art, spirituality and community building. He invited church members, dubbed Jubilants, to think critically and ask questions as he thoughtfully incorporated Buddhist, Christian, Pagan and Native American perspectives while probing life’s most complex questions. Attendees were encouraged to sing along and dance to the church’s World Beat Band — who was known to blend traditional hymns with Grateful Dead and Jimmy Buffett tunes — recite poetry and end each prayer with a hearty “Oh, yeah.”
As word of Hanger’s delightfully unconventional philosophy spread, the new church began to grow. Jubilee! slowly became the place for the curious, the rejected, the joyful, the adrift and those simply in search of a good time.
“It brought me back to religion, but in a way that is just rich. We laugh and we sing and we hug; that has enriched my life,” says longtime Jubilant Billie Bremer. “I would have made it to the end having never found Jubilee! but not with the sense of joy that I now know.”
Today, the church boasts a devoted and spiritually diverse following ranging from the staunchly atheist to the deeply religious, says Minister of Community Wellness Jackie Dobrinska.
On a given Sunday, anywhere from 450-600 people file into the sanctuary, while the number of self-described Jubilants runs into the thousands.
Determined to make a positive impact on the city, Jubilee! began partnering with various community groups, including Homeward Bound and MANNA FoodBank, and hosting classes and lectures to spread awareness of social justice and environmental causes. Hanger’s unorthodox approach even spawned similar institutions in cities across the country, including Houston and New Orleans. Although they’re formally separate, these sister Jubilees! share an emphasis on joyful, open-ended spirituality.
But despite the church’s growth and success, Hanger says his focus is still to “keep the main thing the main thing” — helping society’s most vulnerable members.
Passing the torch
“When Howard first announced that he was retiring, I think everyone got a sinking feeling in their stomach, like ‘What are we going to do now? What’s the future of Jubilee! going to hold?’” remembers choral director Daric Allen Smith.
That was in May of last year, leading the church immediately launch a search for a new minister. After more than a year of planning, discussions and community input, Jubilee!’s 12-member board chose Steinberg, a Jewish singer, writer and performer, as Hanger’s successor.
A May 22 church newsletter praised Steinberg’s “uniquely female presence,” saying she “embodies many of the qualities of our beloved founder, while at the same time being uniquely herself.” Steinberg plans to relocate from San Diego to begin her tenure at Jubilee! on Sept. 22, with ministers Chris Andrews and Lauren Fortuna filling in during the five-week interim period.
Hanger’s advice for Steinberg reflects his personal mantra: Don’t sweat it. “That’s rule one for Jubilee! as far as I’m concerned,” he says, adding, “Jubilee! is far too important to ever take it seriously.”
Let the fun begin
Amid community members’ wide-ranging emotions over the upcoming change, many say they’re grateful for Hanger’s groundbreaking legacy.
“A lot of people in Asheville know Howard in one or two ways — he officiated at a wedding they attended, or they come to Jubilee!, or he did a baptism. But Howard is, in my opinion, one of the people who really made Asheville what it is,” says Vicki Garlock, who’s served as the church’s nurture coordinator and curriculum specialist for more than a decade.
And for his part, Hanger says the only tears he wants to see on his last day at the helm are tears of laughter.
The fun will begin on Saturday, Aug. 10, with a roast that will give friends, family and community members a chance to crack jokes at Hanger’s expense. It will be hosted by his friend George Fleming, and a cash bar will be available. Sunday, Aug. 11, will be Hanger’s final service, followed by music from the Jubilee! Summer Orchestra.
Asked how he plans to use his well-earned free time, Hanger pauses, leaning back in his rocking chair. No, he doesn’t want to write another book or travel the world. He’s not going to start another band or church or school. He’s done all that, he says. But there is at least one thing he’s looking forward to.
“The thing of it is, I have never had a Sunday brunch for 30 years. I’m gonna have some damn Sunday brunch!” Hanger says with a grin. “First order of business is gonna be eating some bagels and salmon and having a bloody mary at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning.”