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Austin’s ‘Cool Church’ Welcomes SXSW Concertgoers

Love and passion warm Lisa Kay Pfannenstiel’s voice as she describes her church’s involvement with South by Southwest (SXSW). In her role as “house manager” (or staff events planner), Pfannenstiel helped guide St. David’s Episcopal Church into becoming an integral part of Austin’s interactive and music conference held each March. For 16 years, St. David’s has been a venue for music during the festival, offering radical hospitality both to audiences and performers.

Austinites are proud of their city as the Live Music Capital of the World, and strive to Keep Austin Weird, despite its rapid growth and changing downtown landscape. St. David’s spaces fit neatly into the creativity that makes Austin unique, says Taylor Cloyd, current house manager and events planner. She expresses the same passion as Pfannenstiel in describing the hospitality the church offers during SXSW. Nostalgia for Austin’s heyday — roughly 1976 to 2014 — is a lens through which many folks still gaze. St. David’s sees itself as the “cool church,” Pfannenstiel said.

Hospitality and an entrepreneurial spirit have been charisms of St. David’s, which celebrated its 175th anniversary in 2023, said the Rev. David Boyd, who was rector when the church began its relationship with SXSW. He says St. David’s rectors have encouraged their parishioners over the years with the words “Let’s try it.”

The church has been a formational part of downtown Austin and the larger area. In addition to founding St. David’s Medical Center, it planted other churches, such as Church of the Good Shepherd in West Austin, and founded St. Stephen’s and St. Andrew’s schools. The Trinity Center, which occupies about a third of the ground floor, provides a safe space and assistance to hundreds of unhoused Austinites.

This entrepreneurial calling to be a welcoming safe haven — open to everybody regardless of political affiliation, religious beliefs, or social standing, as Pfannenstiel says — forms the basis of St. David’s relationship with SXSW. As she relates it, around 2008, under the auspices of Terry Nathan, former parish administrator, the church’s environmental guild sold brownies and other simple refreshments to concertgoers as a fundraiser. This endeavor soon became a “Let’s try it” moment, a way to practice Boyd’s directive to “fill the church when it wasn’t being used for worship.” The vision was for the campus to become “the community center of downtown.”

Pfannenstiel recalls working with Nathan and chef Ray Trono to use Cafe Divine, the church’s food service, to sell corndogs and other festival fare, as well as beer and wine, to SXSW audiences. The offering quickly “became a favorite with the organizers,” and audiences loved eating in Sumner Hall because — unlike the bars on Sixth Street — it was safe. “You could see what you were stepping on, and the bathrooms had toilet paper,” Pfannenstiel says.

Thus the conversations with the SXSW organizers began in earnest, and St. David’s opened Bethell Hall to serve as a venue, followed soon after by its historic nave. St. David’s provides the space, and festival organizers assign performers to the slots. “Pre-pandemic, the music portion of SXSW citywide was primarily four days, Wednesday through Saturday,” she says, and the church had concerts each of those days. Post-pandemic, the church is a venue for three nights.

Cloyd says that this year there were 10 shows per night (divided evenly between Bethell Hall and the historic nave), drawing about 80 people per show. In the space of three nights, somewhere around 2,400 people sat in the pews. Multiply that by 16 years, and that’s in the neighborhood of 40,000 visitors being welcomed and loved.

Pfannenstiel has walked Arlo Guthrie to his hotel, and the members of Mumford & Sons visited Cafe Divine because they had heard it was great. She’s delighted that Sam Smith had his big break at SXSW. St. David’s was his venue. But the story she told of offering space on her office couch to unruly, inebriated people best underscores the effect of the parish’s radical hospitality: “You mean you’re not just going to throw me out?”

Cloyd says that being a festival venue is an act of evangelism. That St. David’s celebrates its identity as a “unique, hip” church in the heart of downtown Austin helps people feel welcome. Both she and Pfannenstiel recount instances of concertgoers either saying they could see themselves coming to church at St. David’s, or showing up on a Sunday if they’re locals.

Boyd and other clergy do “priest patrols,” wearing their collars while greeting, guiding, and answering questions. Pfannenstiel instituted the practice, and Cloyd ensures that current clergy participate. “Come on Sunday morning and see the real show,” Boyd would tell concertgoers who compliment the parish spaces. Parishioners volunteer in other ways, often becoming competitive about it, but Cloyd says SXSW personnel handle most of the work.

“All bands are here at SXSW for exposure and contracts,” Cloyd says, stressing that SXSW is a conference first and foremost. Being a welcoming space for musicians, however, whether well-known or aspiring, feeds into the creative spirit so abundant here. For those who miss the “old Austin,” St. David’s keeps it present, even for Austinites who do not attend SXSW. “We are Austin,” Cloyd says, “the way you wish Austin still was.”

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