Mark Leech, known to many simply as “Mirf,” has been a fixture in the West Michigan music scene since 2000 when he opened Skelletones, a music venue and coffee shop on Division Street in downtown Grand Rapids. Leech, with a shaved head and tattooed arms, looks as though he would feel right at home with the numerous pierced and Mohawk-ed teens flocking to his establishment. Indeed he did, keeping the doors of Skelletones open for nine years and becoming the second oldest all-ages venue in the country by the time the doors were closed in 2009.
Though Skelletones has been closed for two years now, Mirf is still making his mark in Grand Rapids. Shortly after Skelletones closed its doors, The Livingwell House, a church located on Jefferson in downtown Grand Rapids, opened doors of its own. While the jump from mosh pit to pulpit might seem random, Leech contends that it is not. “I feel like everything in my life has prepared me for this.”
Leech’s desire to open Skelletones began in high school after receiving a mix-tape of punk music from his best friend. However, it was more than the music that drew Leech into the punk-rock culture. “I loved the community feeling of being at shows,” said Leech. “It was a small, intimate, broken, beautiful, ugly community.” Though drawn to the community, Mirf was aware of the moral shortcomings present in the punk scene. “For years I wanted to give back to that community, only without the shady aspects of it,” said Leech. “I wanted a place for teens to gather…away from parents, but not have all the negative influence of drugs, alcohol, or sex in the bathrooms.”
Turning this vision into reality proved difficult as financial needs kept multiplying. “We wanted it legit and legal,” said Leech, “which meant building permits.” A project they thought would cost $20,000 quickly escalated to $70,000 just to get the doors open. “We sold our house and car, choosing to live with my mother-in-law for three years,” Leech said. “That’s essentially how we paid to open Skelletones.” With a mix of personal sacrifice and service donations, the doors were opened in 2000.
“We felt privileged to be invited to speak into people’s lives, even when sometimes those were tough words.”
Personal sacrifice did not end once Skelletones was opened, either. “Non-alcoholic venues aren’t known as money makers,” Leech explained, “so paying the rent, taxes, utilities, and maintenance, plus having a little to live on, was a monthly challenge for almost ten years.” Leech never resented the financial difficulties, however. “I felt a genuine, God-given love and directive to provide a safe place for scene kids to call home,” Leech said. “To my wife and I, serving them was worth it all.”
The decision to close Skelletones was multifaceted. “Our plan from day one was to do it for roughly a decade,” said Leech. “We came in at nine years, so, not bad.” Leech and his staff also began to sense that kids in Grand Rapids began to take the music scene for granted. “For the first five years there was a permeating atmosphere of appreciation since people knew what it was like to not have a scene,” said Leech. “After year five, the atmosphere slowly, almost imperceptibly, changed into a consumer-driven culture.” Kids began to vandalize the area and steal from Vertigo, an independent record store nearby. This frustration with the music scene, along with the ending of the most recent three year lease on Skelletones building provided the context in which Leech closed the venue, one year short of their initial goal.
Though, since Leech’s role has changed drastically from venue owner to the pastor at The Livingwell House, he says that his time at Skelletones has helped to prepare him for his current task. “In short, I think it prepared me to be a pastor,” reflected Leech of his tenure at Skelletones. “So often a pastor is only known as a guy who preaches. Scripturally, that is not accurate. Pastor means ‘shepherd.’” Leech sensed a shepherding call at Skelletones. “I was genuinely concerned with not just the success of a show or how many cups of coffee we sold, but the well-being of our regulars,” said Leech. “We felt privileged to be invited to speak into people’s lives, even when sometimes those were tough words.”
Theologically, The Livingwell House is not unique. “Our vision is fairly traditional,” Leech explained. “To know God and make Him known.” However, with Leech at the helm, there is bound to be something different about the church. “I usually preach in shorts and a T-shirt,” admits Leech. “Visitors are privy to my sleeve tattoos from the get-go.”
Though Mirf loved his time at Skelletones, and misses many aspects of it, he has found his home at The Livingwell House. “I plan on preaching at Livingwell House for life,” said Leech. “This is the end for me.” Whether or not Leech has any tricks up his sleeves (other than his tattoos), it is obvious that his passion for God, music, and the Grand Rapids community will keep him as a prominent figure for years to come. ~Chad Cramblet, Regional Director
Fun Fact: Leech and his wife, Annette, have three children who have, perhaps, the coolest names ever. Miles Danger, Ethan Rocket, and Summer Sunshine!