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Safe House

Story by: Patsy Terrell

Faith-based coffee shops in Kansas have become a way for ministries to reach people outside the confines of a traditional church.

Your daily coffee can be about connections and community, not just caffeine. For faith groups across the state, the power of that connection has provided a great opportunity for meeting people where they are.

 

Over the past decades, faith-based coffeehouses have become increasingly common in Kansas, an example of religious groups attempting to exercise leadership by adapting their ministries to reach people outside the confines of a traditional church.

But their very creation – and sustainment – requires leadership, too. Organizers must be able to work across factions, inspire community support and hold to their faith-based purpose to have the impact they desire.

The oldest faith-based coffeehouse in Kansas is the FireEscape Coffeehouse in Chanute. It was founded by a group of high school and college students in 1998. Initially connected with five different churches, the coffeehouse is now its own nonprofit with multiple interests, including a radio station.

Mark and Marilyn Harms serve as the co-executive directors. Their daughter was one of the students in the founding group. The couple felt inspired to work with the coffeehouse even after their daughter was no longer involved. “We’ve always been passionate about kids,” says Marilyn Harms. “We’re just as passionate today as ever. There’s such a need out there.”

The original purpose of the coffeehouse was twofold. The founders wanted to have a place for Christian bands to perform. Beyond that, they wanted a refuge for kids who had nowhere else to go.

“It’s a unique ministry,” says Mark Harms. “There’s something about the coffeehouse, a thing about hospitality, a thing about being welcomed. The kids wanted everyone to come in and be comfortable.”

That has remained their mission – to be a sanctuary, a gathering place.

When it was started 18 years ago, the idea of a coffeehouse was somewhat new to the area, much less a coffeehouse as a ministry. Today it’s more common, but the motivation remains the same.

 

‘Outside the Four Walls of Church’

Around the state, others continue to follow in their footsteps. The idea of starting a coffeehouse ministry is compelling because it can help break down barriers between people of faith and those who do not attend church.

In Sedgwick, the Meeting House is just getting started. Damon Young and his wife, Kate, moved there in 2010 and realized there was no common shared space for people. While on a Boy Scout trip, he began brainstorming with a friend who had considered opening a coffee shop with his wife. Eventually they connected with a third couple and began making plans.

They envision a place where people not only can get coffee but connect with services, enjoy art, maybe attend a workshop. Last summer, they engaged the community to ask about needs. They plan to adjust after they’re open to better serve the area. “We don’t want to provide a solution for what we think the need is,” Damon Young says. “Right now, part of it is speculation.”

He feels certain connection will play a central role. “I think connection is one of the most powerful things there is,” he says. “To understand connection you have to understand disconnection. We’ve all had times in our lives when we felt disconnected. To help people feel connected is a really worthy cause.”

They’ve been working on the project for about a year and a half and plan to have a soft opening this January. “I have an idea to do ministry outside the four walls of a church,” Damon Young says.

Although they are not affiliated with a church, the organizers are driven by faith. “The connection we’re all seeking is that we all desire to have that relationship with God,” he says. “Oftentimes people have damaged that. People are skeptical of religion because they’ve been hurt. We didn’t want to be affiliated with one particular church because of that. We wanted it to be part of our backbone, our DNA. That principle of modeling our faith is really important to us.”

 

‘This is why we do it’

That idea is echoed by Robert Palmer, the owner of Norm’s in Newton. Norm’s opened in 2011 as a coffee shop run by a church. Four years later, the church wanted to move in a different direction and allowed Palmer to turn it into a for-profit, stand-alone business. He added Back Alley Pizza to the building to make the business more viable, but his purpose remained the same. “It’s not what a person does that makes something secular or religious,” Palmer says. “It’s why we do it.”

He had the idea for a coffee shop in the mid 90s. It was an odd concept for people then, especially when partnered with a church, but he couldn’t give up on it. It’s become his way of sharing his commitment to his faith with others in a subtle and less traditional way.

“I realized I would never fit into the traditional pastoral role of being in an office in a church, spending a lot of time in my study and getting ready for the next Sunday,” he says. “Being able to meet people and greet people and network with people and create a community of connection just fit me.”

The restaurant business is demanding, and Palmer and his family make it work by centering their social life around Norm’s. In the case of the FireEscape, Marilyn and Mark Harms have made it a focus of their lives, particularly Marilyn Harms. “This has been my full-time job,” she says.

Her passion for the project has lasted through two locations and 400 bands. It has been a lesson in faith and also in the power of inspiring a common purpose within the community.

 

  • The ministry at the FireEscape Coffeehouse in Chanute, where teens gather to talk, listen or play board games, starts at 8 p.m. on Friday.

 

For the first few years, she says, they continually seemed to have about $250 in the bank. There was always just enough money.

When the owner of the first building they were using for free decided to sell, they had to find another location. They raised $98,000 in six weeks in a community of 9,000 people to purchase the current 20,000-square-foot complex.

Their money comes from donations, mostly by individuals. Marilyn Harms says they no longer worry about it, because it seems to always show up when they need it. When they were thinking about starting a radio station, there were three of them who knew it was going to take about $10,000 to get it off the ground. They put the idea on the shelf and decided it just couldn’t happen right then. That day in the mail they got a $10,000 anonymous gift.

When they were first moving into the building they now own, an espresso machine was in an auction. They had $250 to spend and had no idea the machine retailed for $7,000 new. The bidding started at $4,000, but there were no takers. Then the auctioneer tried $1,000 and there were no takers. Marilyn Harms bid $100. Someone was bidding against them and then asked why they wanted it. When they explained, the bidder dropped out. The final cost was $250.

“The coffeehouse is a story of faith, prayer and miracles,” says Mark Harms.

 

Establishing a Shared Vision

Miracles seem to be a hallmark of the work and faith that allows the proprietors to take things as they come. “If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” Young says.

But being able to work across factions to co-create something is a crucial part of the work. All three of the couples involved in the Sedgwick project had considered something like this, but it hadn’t worked out. Only when they came together were they able to make it happen. “The seeds were planted previously, and when we all got together, God started to water them,” Young says.

 

But that has its own challenges. The other two couples didn’t know each other until they were brought together in this project. “It’s always a challenge to bring people together who don’t have a ton of shared equity with one another,” Young says. “It’s a challenge to build that shared vision that you can all agree on, and at the end of the day make sure you’re meeting a community need.”

 

Faith helped serve as the common denominator for the couples even when they saw things a bit differently.

Conversations have helped them solidify their approach, with an understanding they will adjust if needed once they are open and interacting.

“Each couple came at it with a different perspective, but we all agreed there was a need,” Young says.

 

Adapting Over Time

Adjustments and transitions have been crucial to the success of the other coffeehouses. But even with changes, proprietors have retained their focus on the purpose of living out their faith through their endeavors.

The biggest transition has probably been at Norm’s, where it went from a nonprofit sponsored by a church to a traditional business that now employs 15-18 people. “It has been quite a journey of transitions and learning how to make this work,” says Palmer. “It was all about sustainability.”

Being in business does have some perks. When he was working with volunteers, he did all the drudge work himself. It took him awhile to adjust to the idea that employees should have those tasks in their job descriptions.

The biggest hurdle has been his own thought process. He’s had to expand his own sense of how the coffeehouse connects to inspiring faith in others. “It hasn’t been a struggle practically as much as it has been philosophically for me,” he says. “To be a ministry in my mind had always been a nonprofit structure.”

He felt like he was letting go of the ministry side of it when he went to a business model. He wasn’t sure how to mix them, how the mission could continue. But he realized he wasn’t alone.

“This business of missions isn’t just us. It’s a movement, and it’s huge,” he says. “That really helped us.”

In the end, he was able to accept the loss of the clarity that a nonprofit mission gave him and accept the idea that he could spread his faith and be a business owner at the same time.

 

  • The FireEscape sits in downtown Chanute, a community of about 10,000 people in southeast Kansas. Dozens of similar faith-based coffeehouses are scattered throughout the state.

 

“We are missionaries no matter what we are doing or where we are. We don’t categorize our lives as: This is church, and I’m a different person here than I am there. I am first and foremost a Christian. I am a pastor. I am a Christian business owner. I’m a Christian father. I’m a Christian husband. If a business owner is a Christian, then everything they do is ministry. To think of it in those terms does take a little bit of training,” says Palmer.

Palmer’s faith gives him a sense of not needing to know what the future holds. “I’ve never felt like I was released to leave. I feel like this is the path we’re on. I could do it for many, many years or we could let it go,” says Palmer.

 

Use Words, if Necessary

For the Harmses, the time to let go may be coming soon. Mark Harms retired from his medical practice last year, and they’re considering the next phase of life. “It’s happening sooner rather than later,” he says.

But they still have work to do there and part of that is building a group that can take the coffeehouse to the next phase of its life, too. “It’s still our baby,” he says. They now have three employees and a budget of about $100,000. “When you start growing, you can’t expect people to do a quality job unless you offer employment,” says Mark.

Getting and maintaining volunteers has been the biggest challenge for them, especially for weekend evenings. “People don’t want to give up their weekends,” says Mark. “That’s when our ministry starts – at 8 p.m. on Friday.”

 

They know it’s unlikely they’ll find another couple who wants to devote as much energy to it as they have, and they realize things can’t stay the same forever. “We’ve always been agreeable to having things change,” says Marilyn Harms. “Things don’t ever develop if you stay the same.”

 

So they’re making efforts to show others the way. “This is our ministry. But it’s not ours, it’s God’s,” says Mark Harms. “It’s going to be hard to close the doors and walk away. I’m trying to lead by example, bringing the next person in. We’re looking for people who see something missing and want to fill the gap.”

That is a central theme for the keepers of these businesses – an unmet need for gathering, community, connection. By focusing on establishing connections with other people – talking with them and not at them – they’ve been able to effectively start where the people they hope to reach are.

“Having a fuller life can only happen by the connections we have,” says Palmer. “A wild thing happens – when you put a cup in someone’s hand, they slow down. They will communicate. Then when you eat together you’re sharing an experience that’s fundamental in our lives as human beings. If you create a space where people want to be a part of it, it does offer those relationships.”

 

 

That’s what Young is hoping for in Sedgwick. “This is about the value of gathering together, slowing down,” he says. “I think a space does that to some degree if you can just let people relax in a cozy environment and get to know them. If you build the relationships, who knows where it goes from there?”

In Newton, Palmer says, they look for employees who have a servant heart. They are trained to try to interact with customers at least three times. “It’s not always the amount of time that allows people to build relationships. It’s small touches with people that matter,” he says.

It serves all his purposes. “On the business side, it’s customer service. On the ministry side, it’s the heart of serving other people. It’s one and the same.”

Norm’s has nothing “churchy,” says Palmer. The ministry comes in the form of interaction. “Our main goal is to share through action Christ’s love for people.”

It’s a similar goal for the FireEscape, according to Mark Harms. “Our motto is: ‘Preach the gospel every day. If necessary, use words.’”

 

This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe

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