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A born-again Christian brings the Bible to Bourbon Street bar dwellers

Tony Cilluffo, with his Bible, in his Holiday paint and design shop, Soft Touch Studios, where he airbrushes and paints motorcycles. Cilluffo ministers a “rock ’n’ roll church” called the Edge at Bourbon Street, a nightclub in New Port Richey. “It’s a neat way for people to relate to us,” he says.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Tony Cilluffo, with his Bible, in his Holiday paint and design shop, Soft Touch Studios, where he airbrushes and paints motorcycles. Cilluffo ministers a “rock ’n’ roll church” called the Edge at Bourbon Street, a nightclub in New Port Richey. “It’s a neat way for people to relate to us,” he says.

Tony Cilluffo runs a "rock 'n' roll church" at the Bourbon Street nightclub in New Port Richey, though he won't take credit for it. "God definitely had a way of making this happen," he said.

When you walk in the door, it looks, smells and sounds like most bars — pool tables, cigarette smoke, loud guitar, people in jeans and baseball hats and posters of half-naked women on the wall.

But if you enter at the right time and listen closely, or look up at the TV monitors streaming lyrics, you quickly realize it's anything but typical.

On a recent Sunday at the bar, you might have heard this from the Christian rock band, Solomon's Temple, which volunteered to play: "You are holy, you are holy, you are holy in this place."

Called the Edge at Bourbon Street, Cilluffo's ministry reaches out to people who feel too uncomfortable going to a conventional church.

"We dive in and help these people and show them that we're real and go through life struggles," he said. "It's a neat way for people to relate to us. We don't act religious, we just give them a helping hand."

From 5 to 7 p.m. each Sunday, people gather around the stage in the back of the dimly lit bar, Bibles on tables in front of some of them, listening to an inspirational sermon, scriptures and, of course, rock 'n' roll — from local Christian bands.

"We minister Jesus through the music," he said.

Cilluffo, an artist who owns a motorcycle body shop called Soft Touch Studios on U.S. 19 in Holiday, airbrushes Harley Davidson motorcycles and talks to customers about God and the Bible. There are Scriptures on the wall and Christian music playing.

But it hasn't always been this way. He once worked as a bouncer at a bar.

"Instead of throwing people out, I'm drawing people in," he said.

He said he has been close to divorce and he has done drugs. He was raised Catholic but was "very empty inside and dissatisfied in life," he said. "I was always trying to buy my way into happiness."

He grew so frustrated that he tried out different religions. Jehovah's Witness. Scientology. Greek Orthodox. Methodist. Baptist. Wicca. "I was willing to go wherever I was going to hear the right answer," he said.

Chance encounter leads to change of life

Then one day a professional baseball player came into his shop and changed his life. Jon Carifillus, a born-again Christian, was dying. "Why is there so much hatred and suffering?" Cilluffo asked him. Carifillus suggested he read specific passages from the book of Job, then soon after, a friend suggested he read the exact same passages — and from that moment on, he knew.

A born-again Christian with dark blue eyes and a warm smile, Cilluffo is known by people in the community for being humble and devout. His path allows him to relate to the people he now helps.

"When people come to his shop you can feel the emotion," said David Lero, who had his motorcycle painted by Cilluffo years ago, before they were religious. Lero was at the bar Sunday with his wife, Patricia, and their 2 1/2-year-old son, Joshua. "We're talking grassroots here," he said, adding that Cilluffo and his wife, Angie, have been saved for only two years and what they're doing is tough work. "He's still a virgin to it all."

At a recent church service at the bar, patrons came up and hugged Cilluffo, shook his hand, prayed with him.

He typically leads the service, but this night he invited a guest minister. He said he didn't want the church to be about him, but about God. Cilluffo serves as an elder at Calvary Chapel Worship Center on Trouble Creek Road, and the bar ministry is an offshoot of that church — but they draw completely different crowds.

During the service, in between greeting people, he raised his arms then dropped to the floor, kneeling in prayer.

Dina Kundrat originally tried the Bourbon Street church service for the music, but she was hesitant. "I thought of [evangelists] Jim and Tammy Faye [Bakker]," she said. "I thought it was a bunch of hooey."

But she keeps coming back, in large part because of Cilluffo.

"He's a regular person. He's been there. He's not preaching or shouting at us," she said. "He's a laid-back, regular guy."

From families to bikers, the bar is filled with all sorts of people just trying to find a connection.

Ricky Kelley, a biker with a leather vest, long white ponytail and a toothpick in his mouth, has known Cilluffo since 2000 and now goes to the bar for his church service.

"I think he's pretty awesome," Kelley said.

Greg Serio, who owns Bourbon Street, said his son was saved at the church. Serio invited the service into the bar.

"I was open minded about it," Serio said.

Now it draws 45 to 85 people, depending on the night. Normally, there would be only a handful of regulars. The church brings coolers full of sodas and water to keep in the back of the bar.

Jon Campagna, 21, serves as the sound engineer.

"I'd rather mix for God than the devil," he said.

Cilluffo said other church folks in the community have criticized the idea of having a religious service in a bar, but he's not affected.

"I really believe Jesus would be there with me," he said. "You can see how much they hurt. Trying to drown their sorrows. There's no one that could make this work but God."

about this story

'Faith in Motion'

"Faith in Motion" is a weekly feature about an individual or group doing something inspiring in the course of a spiritual journey. Story ideas are welcomed, via e-mail. Send them to Mindy.Rubenstein@me.com.

A born-again Christian brings the Bible to Bourbon Street bar dwellers 07/17/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 16, 2010 4:03pm]
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