Conversion is a term most often associated with a religious transformation. However, sometimes, a building can also undergo a conversion. Recently, on a hillside in Hazard, a one time local drinking hole took on a more spiritual mission. High atop a hill near the southeastern Kentucky community of Hazard, sits Gospel Light Baptist Church. But, before it became a church, the location was well-known as the Hillbilly Palace Bar. Its conversion was brought about by Pastor Chris Fugate.
The state police detective says the abandoned bar was not his first choice. Fugate and his long time friend Richie Miller could be found praying in front of another building on another mountain. But a passing motorist saw Miller kneeling, made some inquiries and then invited both of them to a meeting.
“And about two days later he sent word for us to call him and Richie called him and we met him…and he said… ‘boys, the Big Man upstairs is wanting to help you with that church and I’m gonna help you and he brought us to this building,” said Fugate.
On their first visit into the shuttered saloon, Fugate and his friend got an up close look at some of its wilder times.
“And we came in here and it was dark and black….everything was painted jet black..and this is God’s honest truth…there were two big piles of hair…I guess where somebody had been fightin..and they’d pulled each other’s hair out..and it was just ..it was a mess,” said Fugate
Nearly every day, Fugate and Miller went inside and got down on their knees.
We would come in here and they had a bunch of old chairs in here and we just kneeled down and prayed about it every morning.”
Work began in October. Builders gutted the one-time tavern, removing the bar and replacing the ceiling. They added an altar. And not too far from the old dance floor, they erected a pulpit. Early this month, the nearly-finished church opened for business.
During that first service at Gospel Light Baptist Church, Vera Wooton was baptized. It was not her first visit there.
“And I had never been in church and Chris asked me to give a testimony a to how I used to be..I didn’t know what he was talking about…a testimony ….what is that…you know..explain to me what that is..so he explained to me how to do it…and so I told em my story,” said Wooton.
Part of the testimony shared by Wooton’s was the story of a 13-year drug addict. .
As a state trooper, Fugate stepped in the Hilly Billy Palace many times. He had arrested Wooton on numerous charges, including disorderly conduct, reckless driving, and driving on a suspended license.
As an addict, Wooton says she kicked-in people’s doors, and stole their belongings. But she adds, “That’s not me anymore.”
“When it would come Wednesday night, girls night at the bar, I would get excited you know…fix my hair…my makeup…you know you would pick your clothes out…you really get ready in your mind to go out and party…that’s what I do know to go to church…three or four days before it’s time to go, I pick my clothes out…it’s just a different way of life,” added Wooton.
Wooton says her time in the bar was also a good time….a place where people gathered to sing, dance, and talk. Not that long ago, Wooton says a couple of women came up the hillside, apparently looking for the old Hillbilly Palace.
And there were two ladies came up there drunk…and walked in and said ‘are you open?’ ..and Chris said, ‘yes we’re open’…and she said this don’t look like a bar…and so you know Chris gave them some pamphlets about Gospel Light Baptist Church,”said Wooton.
Right down at the foot of the mountain below the church sits Village Liquors. Roberta Briggs clerks at the liquor store, which has been at that location for about 20 years.
“I don’t see nothing wrong with it…I think it will be a good thing…I think it will be ok…I don’t go to bars…so I don’t drink and stuff. So I don’t go to bars…it will just keep trouble down , I think,” said Briggs.
A trooper since 1991, Chris Fugate is still with the Kentucky State Police. He says law enforcement offers an awesome way to help people, sometimes allowing him to talk with them.
“I guess God just used by job to just really….put a desire…….to want to do more…you know…. So God opened these doors and only God can do what’s gone on here.. only God can do it,” explained Fugate.
Pastor Fugate hopes to leave law enforcement behind and move into full time ministry in the not too distant future. Fugate comes from a family of ministers. His father was a minister and his brother pastors a church in Lexington.