Coffee and Catholicism is a great combination for the New Evangelization.
The idea of spreading the faith while serving a cup of java is cropping up in parishes, college campuses and even strip malls.
St. James Coffee (StJamesCoffee.com) in Rochester, Minn., was founded on the premise of providing a space in the modern public square for fellowship, dialogue and the opportunity for people to come to know Christ and his Church.
An inspiration of Father Matt Fasnacht, a priest of the Diocese of Winona, Minn., St. James Coffee was founded in a mall across the street from a church. It opened in July 2012 — after four years of planning and fundraising.
As a seminarian, Father Fasnacht was inspired by a speaker who challenged him and his fellow future priests to be like St. Paul: to go out into the marketplace where the people are to preach the Good News.
So, after ordination, he broached the concept of developing a coffeehouse with his new pastor.
"The idea is to be a middle step into the Church, because it’s intimidating for a non-Catholic or fallen-away Catholic to come into a parish, especially by themselves. Here they can be anonymous; they can look at the faith on their own terms," said Father Fasnacht.
St. James Coffee is a nonprofit operation that has several paid staff, but mainly relies on donations and volunteers. Its profits are donated to several Catholic charities and local food pantries.
The shop hosts weekly speakers and bands. Catholic books and Bibles are available for patrons to read.
There’s also a chapel dedicated to Eucharistic adoration. Bishop John Quinn recommended the chapel when he gave approval for the coffeehouse, where he often speaks or visits.
Fresh Way to Share the Gospel
"I have heard of various efforts to reach people with the Gospel in fresh ways, but I have not heard of it as a coffeehouse in a mall," said Bishop Quinn. "The concept is to help people be able to talk about religion, the Catholic Church and Jesus Christ in a safe, supportive environment — for seekers or for those who were once Catholic and for various reasons have left but want to come back."
Raymond de Souza, director of evangelization for the diocese, gives regular talks on apologetics at the coffeehouse. Other speakers have included a doctor from the Mayo Clinic speaking on Dante’s Inferno and abortion survivor Michael Latawiec.
But Catholics aren’t the only coffee drinkers who come.
Protestants use the space for Bible studies, and young people are drawn to the coffeehouse to hang out and hear the speakers. Even non-Christians come for coffee and fellowship.
One young man is discerning the priesthood after hearing a talk on vocations, and a woman who had been away from the Church for 30 years is making steps to come back, according to Terry Smith, executive director of St. James Coffee.
"What I perceive happening here as a result of the coffeehouse is we’re building our Catholic community through the events and friendships that are being formed, and we’re learning about our faith and the Catholic culture," said Smith.
"We hope that Catholics and non-Catholics will be empowered to live and communicate the Gospel values in their families, workplaces and the marketplace — and that, eventually, these Gospel values will be more assimilated into public policy, because we live in a very secularized culture."
This is a concept that Andrew Whaley, owner of Calix Coffee, a coffee-consulting business, has been pondering for 20 years.
A graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, he consulted with the Augustine Institute, a theology graduate school, in Greenwood Village, Colo., to design its coffee shop, Tolle Lege Coffee Bar ("Take Up and Read," in Latin). The name is a tribute to the institute’s namesake, St. Augustine, and his conversion story. Augustine heard a voice telling him to pick up the Bible and read the first verse he turned to. The verse was Romans 13:14: "… put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh."
Christine Ehrhard, a second-year student at Augustine Institute, enjoys the presence of the coffee shop on campus.
"We’ve had a lot of different people coming in. There is a group of gentlemen who are not from around here who do a Bible study here each week, knowing it’s Christian, and they’re welcome. There are constantly people there after the noon Mass," she said.
"They go there for lunch before going back to work. As a student, it’s been very helpful because you have a place to meet with people for schoolwork and meetings and come together to eat.
"For us, that’s a beautiful thing. It has strengthened the community for the students. Dr. [Tim] Gray always says it’s the best latte in town, and I would have to agree."
Whaley envisions starting a national apostolate of evangelization through thoughtfully designed coffeehouses that are not overtly Catholic but that show the beauty, truth and goodness of the Catholic culture and serve a great cup of coffee.
"The coffeehouse is the great equalizer. It was the first place in Western society where people of all social classes and worldviews mixed. There are people who will have conversations in a coffeehouse who will not talk to each other in the produce aisle. It really is an idea whose time has come," said Whaley, noting that he is getting calls from all over the country seeking his consulting services.
Whaley wants to establish more coffeehouses as oases of spiritual, intellectual and aesthetic wonder by college campuses, in urban neighborhoods and in small towns.
He is currently developing a prototype in Denver and has plans for a second in Fort Collins or Boulder, Colo., where people can be trained in the art of being baristas.
He wants spaces where people can "just love people, live in front of them and be caught up in the wonder that is truth in God in front of them. We just want to create a space where that can happen."
‘Theology on Bean’
Our Shepherd’s Café at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church in Farmer’s Branch, Texas, near Dallas, is drawing as many as 400 people to its monthly "Theology on Bean" nights.
The café is a venue for those excited about their faith, as well as those not so excited. "Lost sheep welcome" is its motto, according to Yong Oh, 38, who has been operating coffee-shop ministries since 2007, the last three years at Mary Immaculate.
The evening begins with adoration and confession, as well as prayer and praise in the main church, and then people go to the parish hall, which is converted into a coffee shop, to hear a speaker or Catholic musician. The evening closes with prayer.
Oh said the mission of Our Shepherd’s Café is to promote the Catholic culture through the sacraments, speakers and artists.
A second mission is to promote vocations. Priests and members of various religious orders are invited to speak and mingle with the audience of mostly young adults. Each year, the coffeehouse hosts a "Vocation Awareness Night," which garners the biggest turnout of the year, according to Oh.
A third mission is social justice. Oh travels to Honduras to purchase coffee from impoverished farmers. The coffee is sold at the café, and proceeds are given back to the farmers. This year, she is taking volunteers with her to Honduras.
Our Shepherd’s Café operates on freewill donations only. Its success is rooted in the Eucharist, said Oh: "The years we struggled the most were when I didn’t put Christ first. He is the center of our evenings, with adoration as the focus and ending with night prayer and praise.
"Ever since then, it’s been growing. When we gather to set up, the first thing we do is go into the chapel and pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet for everyone who will come that night."
St. Francis Assisi parish in Raleigh, N.C., operates a nonprofit coffeehouse in its community center after Sunday Masses and during athletic and other events.
Parents frequent the coffee shop during the week while their kids are at the church’s school, and Friday evenings are reserved for family-friendly musical, comedy or theater entertainment, provided mainly by parishioners.
"Basically, it’s for bringing the community together for fellowship. It’s a place to go for impromptu meetings, a place to read or have Bible studies," said Tricia Henry, the parish’s coordinator of community life.
"We have a beautiful grassy area where people can hang out and picnic, and the coffee shop is open for this. People come from outside the parish as well."
Other parishes are incorporating coffee shops into their youth ministries, including a middle-school-age coffee shop at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Tampa, Fla., and a high-school coffee shop at St. Michael’s in Prior Lake, Minn. "These coffeehouses give teens a space just for them that they’re proud to bring their friends," said Pat Millea, St. Michael’s director of high-school faith formation and youth ministry, whose coffee shop attracts as many as 70 or 80 youth for Masses, game nights and movie nights.
"The coffeehouse theme is a secular version of what we’re trying to do in the Church, which is to make an intimate, welcoming, comfortable place like home where you feel understood," said Millea.
"That, more than the drinks we serve, is what keeps these youth involved."
Barb Ernster writes from