The American Coffeehouse Straight Out of Krakow

(photo: Photos by Steve Dalgetty)

This week I invited my friends Ever and Soren Johnson to guest blog for Countdown to WYD. Ever and Soren have a unique story that started in Krakow, but that didn’t end there. Ever Johnson is the Executive Director of The John Paul II Fellowship and the Manager of Trinity House Café. Soren Johnson is the Bishop’s Delegate for Evangelization and Media for the Diocese of Arlington.

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By Ever and Soren Johnson

On July 4 of the Jubilee Year of 2000, we met at the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society in Krakow, Poland. Sixteen years and five children later, we feel as if we’re still in the beginning stages of opening the gift we received during that Holy Year.

That gift can be described in just a few words given to us by our beloved Pope St. John Paul: life as gift. This simple phrase was our marriage’s ideal from the beginning; later, in 2006, it inspired us to found a non-profit called The John Paul II Fellowship; as of Fall 2014, this ideal has us spending our days in hospitality at the Fellowship’s coffeehouse in Leesburg, Virginia.

But long before coffee, there was Krakow. The John Paul II Fellowship grew out of our experience at the Tertio Millennio Seminar in Krakow, which brings together North American and Central and Eastern European students to teach St. John Paul’s vision for a free society in accord with human dignity. The seminar’s goal is to prepare the students to bring John Paul’s vision to life in their respective cultures. And the members of the John Paul II Fellowship want to do just that.

Taking a longer view, the Fellowship traces its roots back to the 1950s when a group of lay people first gathered around Father Wojtyla. At first, it was just a small group that began gathering in homes and churches.  Soon, the 20 became 200. The group was called Srodowisko, which translates roughly as “milieu.” Srodowisko was John Paul’s Fellowship.

Deep friendships formed among the members, and together they cared for the needy, met in discussion groups and literary circles, went on mountain hikes and annual retreats, put on theatrical productions, formed family groups. Gradually, their community and culture became an alternative to the emptiness of communism, a kind of resistance movement creating pockets of true freedom in an enslaved society. At the core of this underground movement was the ideal that life is not about pursuing our self-interest, but about giving ourselves in service to others, gifting them in the same way God has gifted us.

It should come as no surprise that the story of John Paul’s fellowship forms the backdrop for so many of us who came to faith during his pontificate. We are, after all, extended family members of that fellowship, formed through World Youth Day and so many encounters with this same priest whose life revealed that self-giving love.

One year after meeting, we married and settled in Washington, DC, where we had both lived previously, and continued to deepen ties with a vibrant network of lay people engaged in all sorts of Gospel-inspired activities: an apostolate to the homeless; another bringing young entrepreneurs together to reflect on faith and business; groups intent on faithful citizenship. It was only natural to join together with this part of John Paul II’s extended Srodowisko.

Wherever we looked, we found interconnected and near-hidden groups of Christians who lived out an alternative to the hollowness of materialism and utilitarianism—a kind of underground resistance movement that created islands of true freedom in an impoverished society. But the underground fellowship of John Paul II did not stay underground; eventually it burst into the open in the Solidarity movement and reclaimed its historic culture and faith from a false ideology.

In 2006, we took a step we had been talking about since we first met. We started The John Paul II Fellowship hoping that it could connect these groups and give them a place to be more visible to our starving culture. Years of community and culture-building events—seminars, art exhibits, live music, dinners—at parishes in the greater Washington, DC, area followed. But we needed something more to bring about change in our culture.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that America’s Great Awakening was partly the result of networks. For the Methodists, who went from 20,000 to 90,000 followers in just a few years, the ingredient was simple: small groups of 150 or less which met regularly in meeting houses. Gladwell writes that Methodist great John Wesley realized that if you want to bring about a fundamental change in beliefs and behavior, you need to create community in a place where those new beliefs can be expressed and nurtured.

John Wesley “wasn’t one person with ties to many other people.” Instead, Gladwell writes, “He was one person with ties to many groups.” The same could be said for Wojtyla and his networks: St. John Paul was a connector who nourished his small communities. Having been formed by his spirit, the members of the John Paul II Fellowship wanted the same for their culture in the West that John Paul’s Srodowisko had brought about in the East – a reclaiming of our historic faith and culture from a false ideology. But short of an historic pontificate, how could we come out from underground as they had? We decided to try Wesley’s method – create community in a place where Christian beliefs can be expressed and nurtured.

For John Paul II Fellows intent on building a culture of life—in academia, the family, community, science, technology, sports, art, music, work, business, law, politics—it made sense to start in a place where all of those sectors intersect. And so, the Fellowship decided on one of today’s best public intersections, the local coffee house. We opened Trinity House Café in the Fall of 2014.

Located on the corner of Church and Market Streets in the center of Leesburg’s historic district, across from the courthouse where the Declaration of Independence had its first public reading in the State of Virginia, Trinity House Café has become a fixture for many, including our 10,000 member parish just three blocks away. Housed in an elegant 1794 Federal-style residence that belonged to one of the first mayors of Leesburg, the café serves as a meeting place for our community and a place to reach out to our town with Christian hospitality and the spirit of life as gift.         

The non-profit café features a full coffee and tea bar where the C.S. Lewis and Little Flower Lattes compete for customers along with a varied menu of salads, sandwiches, snacks, baked goods, wine and beer. With plenty of space, the café has a playroom, a garden with picnic tables, a community bulletin board, a breezy front porch for watching passersby, a book and gift shop, regular art exhibits, weekly live music and kids’ events, and meeting space for countless groups that gather there weekly or monthly. 

Open 80 hours a week, we have served over 75,000 customers from every walk of life since opening day. A large reproduction of Andrei Rublev’s Trinity icon, which hearkens back to an older icon called “The Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah,” greets every guest. We try our best to welcome every guest as Abraham greeted the angels. Over and over again, guests tell us the café has “good energy,” that it’s peaceful, a place of respite, and that they feel happy there. The “we” that makes this possible is not just us but a community of dozens of families and individuals who have made the mission of Trinity House their own.

But Trinity House Leesburg is only one island of revival. What will happen if others also give the Catholic and broader Christian “underground” across the country, indeed across all of former Christendom, public places to surface and to revive Christian community and culture? Might we see a tipping point, another Great Awakening, the “new springtime” prophesied by John Paul II? 

It is not an exaggeration to say that Krakow not only changed our life, but gave us our mission. As we count down to WYD Krakow, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will once again visit this privileged place and enflame the hearts of many for the new evangelization.