Coffee: The Beverage That Fuels the Church

How the church has transformed a cup of joe into a universal display of hospitality.
Coffee: The Beverage That Fuels the Church
Image: Beady Eyes

My addiction to it compelled me to drink a pot and a half of it a day. I have abstained from it for weeks with the help of a steady intake of strong tea. I have dressed it up with foamed milk, beaten cream, and thick drizzles of caramel; I have dressed it down to draw near to its scalding essence. I have drunk it spiced with pepper, made succulent with butter, and soured with chicory root. I have a cousin who powdered his family’s fishbowl with instant brew because their fish “had a headache.” Like that manic fish, I have grimaced through many headaches of my own.

Among non-alcoholic drinks, only water has a greater claim to ubiquity than coffee. The National Coffee Association USA claims, “After crude oil, coffee is the most sought commodity in the world.” Americans import their beans, raw or pre-roasted, from nations all over the earth, and prepare drinks from those beans using all manner of devices: from humble coffee pots to systems festooned with dials and knobs, capable of manufacturing multiple atmospheres of pressure in order for the home brewer to pull a café-quality espresso. The gilded pipes and fittings of this $2,495 apparatus evoke an age of steam power and glass arcades.

Ostensibly a tool for keeping one’s focus sharp in the present, coffee is at the center of a culture that inclines backwards and forwards at once. Its aroma can evoke 19th-century marble-topped café tables and chamber music—at the same time, the caffeine acclimates the brain to the endless interfaces of the Internet.

That aroma is discernible in the air this morning, wafting out of the door being held open for me as I enter my Toronto church. Of course there will be coffee here: I can imagine few better accouterments for ancient-future faith than this drink of coincidental historicity and futurity.

If Jesus Were a Coffee Guy

“The age of crappy church coffee is at an end!” my associate pastor tells me when I ask him about what we’re drinking. He sees the church’s refreshments table as a gesture of goodwill towards its guests. “I’d much rather we spend money on hospitality, if we can.”

Travelers from the West initially associated coffee with Islam, which caused some suspicion and confusion in the early days of European exposure to the new drink.

Grace Toronto Church’s primary demographic is young urban professionals; to cater to them, it is necessary to provide something on the order of café quality drinks. On the fixings table, squat steel carafes contain boxes of 2% milk as well as “5% Milk (Light Cream!).” During the summer, the church even sets out great brown containers of cold brew.

According to Tom Standage’s A History of the World in 6 Glasses, coffee’s potable origins can be traced back to the 15th century, in the Yemeni region of the Arabian Peninsula. Purportedly, a scholar and Sufi mystic named Muhammad al-Dhabhani was the first to try boiling the berries his compatriots chewed for stimulation, and the resulting drink was adopted by many Sufis for use in late-night religious ceremonies. By 1510, people were drinking coffee in Mecca and Cairo; soon after, the practice spread throughout the Arab world.

Travelers from the West initially associated coffee with Islam, which caused some suspicion and confusion in the early days of European exposure to the new drink. This potential barrier to widespread Western adoption was dismantled in 1605, when, as Standage writes, “Pope Clement VIII was asked to state the Catholic church’s position on coffee.” After tasting a sample provided by a Venetian merchant, “[t]he story goes that he was so enchanted by its taste and aroma that he approved its consumption by Christians.” By the mid-17th century, coffeehouses could be found in London, Amsterdam, Paris, and in cities all over Western Europe.

Standage characterizes the coffeehouses of Enlightenment-era Europe as nodes in a new information network he calls the “Coffeehouse Internet.” Anyone interested in the progress of science (or “natural philosophy”) could pay for a dish of coffee at certain establishments, while the literary set would gather at others. Runners with knowledge of major events would dash between coffeehouses to announce the news. Coffeehouses became so deeply associated with the transmission of information that they became known in England as “penny universities”: a penny being the average price of the dish of coffee that granted its drinker access to the never-ending, wide-ranging discussions that happened within.

Visiting a café today in a major Western city, it’s easy to see the ways that Standage’s “Coffeehouse Internet” has been displaced by, well, the actual Internet. Patrons sit in private conversation with one another or pull up their laptops, browsing the vast stores of information available to them. The public and egalitarian discussions of trade, politics, and science among strangers happen now online, if they happen at all.

However, there is one clear exception to this prevailing trend—one example of the ways that 17th- and 18th-century coffeehouse culture has survived into the present day. I’m talking about church: in theory, a meeting-place for people of all different social classes and political affiliations, where ideas are discussed openly among strangers while urns of coffee bubble along the periphery.

My own church serves coffee and tea in the cafeteria of the high school building we’re renting after the service ends in the auditorium. I look around: everyone is talking, and almost everyone is drinking from paper cups swathed in napkins for insulation. The scene is one part French salon, one part daycare, and one part indoor picnic. At a glance, it is impossible to tell the specific role played by the coffee, although it clearly gives everyone a common reason for entering the room as well as something to do with their hands (a significant task, as any person on a first date will tell you).

“This coffee is amazing,” my wife tells me, and it’s at this moment that I realize I’m not sure I know what good coffee tastes like. I take another sip. It’s kind of sour and acidic.

“Mhmm,” I reply.

I ask my pastor later to expand on the church’s strategy re: coffee. What does it represent to him?

“Coffee is like a comfort blanket that young professionals carry around after the service, and it gives them courage to interact with one another,” Pastor Kyle replies. “For me, hospitality is guided by the principle that we welcome the stranger as we would welcome Christ. For me, coffee is the way I would welcome Christ.”

Jesus would not be disappointed here—at least not if he were a coffee guy.

For Peter Schellhase, who serves on the vestry of his Episcopal church and helps with refreshments, “‘coffee hour’ is one of the main ways people in the congregation keep up with one another.” Responsibilities for the provisions circulate through his church; “families are assigned to “host” in turns, which for most looks like making a run to Costco…hosts generally put on quite a spread. When my wife and I host, it’s quite a bit lighter, because we do not have the spiritual gift of Costco membership.”

This general approach is reflected in a number of other responses I receive. For Amanda McClendon, who helps to prepare pots of Whole Foods Pre-Ground Breakfast Blend each Sunday in the YMCA gym where her church meets, “it’s more about the ritual of the thing than the quality…I like having something to offer guests. There’s something about giving someone something edible or drinkable when you’re welcoming them into your space that’s powerful and a little more hospitable than just words.”At Schellhase’s church, the coffee comes out after both Sunday morning services. I ask him whether he feels any pressure to serve high-end stuff. No, he replies—“What is the kind that comes in the big blue plastic tubs? The church provides it. I think it’s Maxwell House.” At his church, the coffee isn’t the point at all.

Jesus would not be disappointed here—at least not if he were a coffee guy.

At his Lutheran church in Montana, pastor Christopher Miller provides Folgers “from the huge coffee urn” after Sunday services in response to what has become a well-rooted expectation. “It’s not as important as the gospel,” he says, “but there will be disappointment if it’s not there.”

Pastor Jeff Kerr, whose church brews Costco’s signature Kirkland brand for post-service refreshments, agrees that providing coffee helps to create community: “I always kind of disliked churches where everyone is gone ten minutes after the service is over. The coffee—and sandwiches, fruit, etc.—that we serve after the service makes for a lively community gathering.” Kerr serves his church in this way in spite of the fact that he “personally [doesn’t] care for the stuff.” But, he says, “its effect on our congregation is palpable.”Even so, coffee hour is a ripe time for fellowship, which Miller considers critical: “The ability to share coffee (and goodies) gives people a place to share their lives with each other, something that is hard to do in our crazy lives now. And yet, we believe that the gospel is also communicated in the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints. That’s what coffee facilitates.”

Pastor and writer Brian Gregory Thomas keeps “no fewer than two coffee makers operating at opposite ends of the church before and during Sunday School.” Those tasked with coffee service “just roll into Wal-Mart and swipe a big tub of Folgers up off the shelf and use that.” As resolutely normal as the church’s coffee service is, Thomas finds that his pots of Folgers reflect the body of which he is a part: “Our coffee is simple, unassuming, and common. Our people are the same way. Our church is the same way.”

Image-Bearing Baristas

I understand my friends who don’t think twice about the big tub of Folgers at Wal-Mart—I have likely eyed the same tub.

But there are those who disdain such poorhouse fare, who would even consider lower-end coffee a hindrance to ministry. They provide full-service espresso bars, use artisanal beans, and speak of—in coffee culture’s irreverent idiom—the “God shot.” Though their working methods bring high school chemistry class to mind, these churches share the same goals as their Maxwell House-sipping brethren: creating fellowship and opportunities for ministry.

“I think coffee, particularly in our context—an inner city church in Australia (the hipster coffee snob capital of the world)—is a form of hospitality,” Nathan Campbell tells me. “The sort of tea and coffee you serve is a demonstration of how much you value those walking through your doors and, potentially, into your community.” Campbell’s church has a full espresso bar, and the expanded repertoire is a boon to ministry among Brisbane’s coffee elites. The beans are locally roasted; before and after services, a team of volunteer baristas prepares drinks to order.

Campbell is also involved in the local coffee scene, which he sees as part of his ministry to the community. “I’m currently starting a social enterprise café with a local social justice organization, which will provide training and workplace inclusion to vulnerable people in our part of the city,” he says.Though I initially scoffed at the idea that this method could be affordable to smaller or relatively less affluent churches, Campbell has calculated elsewhere that it is possible to serve espresso-based coffee drinks for about $0.52 AUD a cup (although this doesn’t include the initial cost of purchasing or leasing the necessary equipment).

His work is rooted ultimately in his theology: “Done well, with attention to the order and detail required, there’s something about the preparation of coffee that is us bearing the image of God and exercising dominion over creation.” He adds, however, that he is “probably not ‘representative’ of how other pastors approach coffee.”

But there are certainly many others who take a comparable approach. Pastor Matt Busby moved to Chattanooga to work at a church with a vision for a space that would “be a gift to the community six days a week.” Monday through Saturday, the church’s location “is a third space/coffee shop/restaurant/venue.” Echoing Campbell, he says they “definitely do not have a normal perspective when it comes to coffee…the coffee shop isn’t just a small side piece of our church. It is our entire space.”

“There’s something about the preparation of coffee that is us bearing the image of God and exercising dominion over creation.”

The way Busby describes it, The Camp House acts as a kind of low-level onboarding for people interested in the church: If weekday patrons “decide to come to the Mission on Sundays, they walk into a space where they are already part of the community.” He estimates that only about 10 percent of people who visit The Camp House during the week attend Sunday services.Busby sends me photos of The Camp House, Mission Chattanooga’s weekday coffee shop. I see patrons in various states of repose: a typical coffeehouse crowd, smiling and sipping and chatting and typing. The space is warehouse-y, but overhung with chandeliers, in a style that Busy and his colleagues describe as “Byzantine Industrial.”

Busby’s church supports local businesses with their purchases. One of those outfits is Mad Priest Coffee Roasters, a company started by Camp House barista Michael Rice. Mad Priest’s goal is to employ refugees who have resettled in Chattanooga, equipping them with transferable skills and helping them to make a way in their new city. Mad Priest’s social justice orientation resonates with Mission Chattanooga’s sense of mandate. As Busby says, “Owning and operating a coffee shop/gathering place at the center of our city is about seeking the flourishing of the community to which God has called us to bear witness.”

A Venti for Justice

Often supported by contributions and patronage from local churches, social justice-minded organizations like Mad Priest carve out an equitable niche in the gargantuan worldwide coffee economy. Another such group is Underground Coffee.

In the early 1980s, inspired by liberation theologians to leave the world of academia in favor of a life with the poor, Bob Ekblad began an agricultural movement in Honduras. Since 1981, Tierra Nueva, as the organization is called, has been “working with the poorest peasant farmers in the wild-west mountains of Honduras, teaching sustainable agriculture, soil conservation, and working pastorally with the most outcasted families in villages surrounding Minas de Oro.” Ekblad moved to Washington State’s Skagit Valley region in the 1990s to begin a new branch of Tierra Nueva’s ministry there among migrant farmworkers, as well as inmates in the jails and prisons.

Chris Hoke joined Ekblad as a jail chaplain in the mid-2000s, and soon after, Honduran farmers called with news: they were looking for a place to sell their coffee harvest after becoming some of the best growers in the region.

Hoke tells me over the phone that he had come to Washington looking for ways to “engage the Bible and folks on the margins,” especially those who had been recently incarcerated. After spending most of his time young gang members in and out of the jail where they met, Hoke was particularly impressed with an organization in Los Angeles called Homeboy Industries, which creates “microenterprises” that can serve as “gateway jobs” for those whose criminal records would bar access to other employment—helping ex-convicts to learn transferable skills while building their résumés.

It was around this time that the coffee farmers from Honduras asked whether any of their friends in the north had any ideas for where they might sell their harvest. Ekblad and Hoke applied for and received a grant from a Presbyterian foundation, bought a five-kilo roaster, hired a former meth cook who came to faith in one of Ekblad’s Bible studies and felt called to a life of ministry, and together the three of them founded Underground Coffee.

Underground Coffee’s website describes the company as a “vertically integrated coffee enterprise” with a twofold aspect. The first is Tierra Nueva’s ongoing work in Honduras, the second most violent country in the world. Along with prevailing social and economic instability, the violence is “pushing a generation of Central Americans to migrate north to the United States looking for undocumented work.” Tierra Nueva’s work with famers is intended to develop “agricultural hope in the poorest regions where families can stay and thrive.” On a high peak in the Altamira region of Honduras, Tierra Nueva’s coffee farm employs five year-round employees as well as roughly 45 seasonal workers during the harvest season, which lasts from December to February. Workers wash and process the beans on-site and dry them in the sun.

The second aspect of Underground’s work is done back in Washington, where, in alignment with the Homeboy Industries template, men and women whose criminal records would disqualify them from other positions are able to find “gateway employment” working with the Honduran coffee after it arrives in the US.

Underground’s employees “roast, weigh, bag, and deliver…fresh, single-origin, boutique-roast coffee,” with the product reaching “homes, churches, and businesses across the country” and “proceeds…funding a new generation of outreach workers at Tierra Nueva.” An “Employees” page on Underground’s site shows photos of a number of alumni, some of whom have gone on to enroll in degree programs and work in different ministries.

In Underground’s early days, Hoke tells me, the ministry “was barely clearing 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of green [coffee] bean harvest, only roasting one morning a week, and employing three to four guys for a handful of hours each.” The business was small, relying primarily on business with local churches, and didn’t grow for several years; Underground’s supervisors were pastors, and “it’s hard to run a tight ship when your supervisors are also your employees’ spiritual mentors.” Even so, Underground thrived on a small scale and sold their products primarily to churches throughout the Northwest.

Less than two years ago, Fidalgo Bay Coffee—a Seattle-area coffee company—started fishing around for ways to develop deeper partnerships with coffee growers, with a special interest in Honduras. Fidalgo Bay’s CEO was directed to Underground Coffee, and he approached Hoke in a spirit of generosity and compassion: “How can I help you?” he asked Hoke. “How can I serve?”

Fidalgo started to pick up slack in various areas of Underground’s business where the pastors and chaplains had no expertise, such as importing, warehousing, and general logistical matters. Eventually the company bought Underground Coffee (which remains an independent social responsibility organization) in partnership with Tierra Nueva, under the Fidalgo Bay umbrella.

Thanks to Fidalgo’s high-end infrastructure and larger scale, Underground Coffee is now able to “buy and guarantee Tierra Nueva’s Altamira farm’s entire 12,000 pound harvest,” while continuing to employ a person in its “gateway” model internship—now for 12-16 hours a week. Underground’s current intern “is an outstanding member of the team,” Hoke says. A former local drug dealer, she “had become the house manager in our partner recovery home, but still has court dates, helping acclimate Fidalgo as a business to formerly incarcerated employees’ needs.” Fidalgo has now hired her for full-time work beyond her hours with Underground.

While the company’s partnership with Fidalgo has opened up new markets beyond churches in the Pacific Northwest, those local churches—and others across the country—remain the foundation for Underground’s business. One of Hoke’s goals for Underground is for the coffee to be “a Trojan Horse for talking about mass incarceration” in the churches they serve.

“Churches are full of a lot of Christians who believe and worship along a certain line of values of liberation, of mercy, of compassion…but [who] vote for a political system that is different—that is unforgiving, that is unmerciful,” he says. “If Tierra Nueva can be a small catalyst for conversations in churches, if it can be a sacrament—beans broken by people God is bringing out of the underground—if this can wake some Christians up to our addiction to unmerciful systems, then that’s our larger mission right now.” With the amount of economic power held by the 300,000+ churches in the U.S., the potential for churches to impact the international coffee trade through mindful purchasing and consuming is enormous.

“Coffee is so international—why not delight in looking where your coffee is coming from?”

For most folks, the common entry point into ethically-minded coffee purchasing is fair trade coffee. Labels marked with “fair trade” indicate that the coffee has been licensed as meeting fair trade standards, which are meant to ensure that a too-abundant supply of beans does not result in steep price drops for the farmers who harvest those beans. They also prohibit forced labor and child labor.

So is buying fair trade coffee a worthwhile investment for churches?

“Fair trade is better than nothing,” Hoke says, but the organization that provides the trademarked license still creates “a very tricky gatekeeping system where some of the small farmers can’t benefit.” He recommends entering into a direct relationship with growers—which is what Underground Coffee does with the Tierra Nueva farmers in Honduras—but he admits that such an arrangement is also fraught with importing difficulties.

Ultimately, though, Hoke simply “want[s] churches, like all of us, to be conscious of what we’re buying. Churches, this is their number-one drug. If you’re going to be spending x amount of your church’s budget on this, then why not take a sacramentally and socially-connected attitude towards it?”

An avid coffee drinker himself, he sees opportunities for wonder as well as justice-minded action in the world of coffee: “Coffee is so international—why not delight in looking where your coffee is coming from?”

Eternity Meets Coffee Time

I finish my call with Hoke, pack up my things in the lobby of my apartment building, take an elevator to the eleventh floor, and enter my apartment, where my own coffee ritual is about to begin.

I fill and activate our kettle, mete out two even scoops of coffee from the orange tin into a small French Press, and preset a timer on my microwave to four minutes. When the water boils and the kettle chimes, I pour the water over the grounds, which swirl into a black-and-tan scurf under the lip of the press. I stir the grounds, wait my four minutes, and depress the plunger on top of the press. I pour my coffee into a mug adorned with the image of an eight-point buck and set it on my desk next to my computer, where I begin to write as my drink cools.

This ritual of mine is representative of the millions of private rituals performed every day in cities and homes all over the world. As James K. A. Smith reminds us in his Cultural Liturgies books, it’s by rituals such as these that our hearts are formed and our desires refined. It is in our rituals, as well, that our hearts are revealed.

The meaning of the ritual of coffee in the Western church exists only in iterations: Individual communities of believers define it according to their own purposes, needs, and beliefs. For some of those believers, coffee is a simple accommodation offered to friends and strangers alike. For others, it is a means of fellowship under the sign of the age. Still others see potential in it for meaningful engagement with some of the social injustices of our time. The resulting collage of activity renders a definite image when viewed from a height: The picture is of the church performing its mundane acts of transfiguration on everything that it touches and gathers to itself—even coffee.

Across the country, tens of thousands of churches will take a busy collective hour this weekend to prepare their coffee service. Men and women will set out stacks of paper cups with corrugated sleeves, trays of ceramic mugs, or towers of Styrofoam cups alongside bowls of sugar packets and sachets of powdered cream. They will adjust steam wands, peel foil seals off plastic tubs, and heave urns into place. They will push open the flimsy accordion-style doors over the counter in the Fellowship Hall, and the crowd will converge.

Martyn Wendell Jones is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Books & Culture, The Behemoth, The Puritan, and other publications. He lives in Toronto with his wife.

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Coffee: The Beverage That Fuels the Church