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A barista on a mission

Retiree’s second act is a coffeehouse ministry

by April H. Cranford | Presbyterians Today

Kate Lewis Brown spruces up Community Cup Coffee & More in Martinsburg, West Virginia. (Contributed photo)

Last fall, Shenandoah Presbytery hosted an all-day educational event at Massanetta Springs Camp and Conference Center in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The event focused on the bold vision of being a Matthew 25 church with two guest speakers: the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Public Witness, and the Rev. Dr. Margaret Grun Kibben, chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Between the morning and afternoon sessions, attendees left the conference spaces and engaged in table fellowship.

After selecting food items from the buffet, many stepped outside to eat lunch around picnic tables scattered on the front lawn. Like a breeze blowing through the trees, the Spirit blew among the tables igniting conversations about overcoming racism, building faith communities and loving neighbors.

Attendees sitting across the picnic table from Elder Kate Lewis Brown noticed that her face began to glow with joy as she spoke about her retirement goals of starting a coffee shop and a new worshiping community in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

Since Brown was the only person from West Virginia at the picnic table, she gave background information on her hometown: Martinsburg, located in the Eastern Panhandle of the state, was once a thriving city with six textile mills, a hospital, nursing school, hotel and many shops and restaurants. When the textile industry moved south, Martinsburg began to decline like so many other places.

More recently, Martinsburg was seriously affected by opioids and other drugs. This was partly because of its location adjacent to the I-81 corridor, a convenient route for drug transport from the South to large cities such as Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The results, she told others as they broke bread together, were increases in substance abuse, homelessness and mental health issues.

Already intrigued with the denomination’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Brown’s interest piqued in 2019 as she participated in conversations with local pastors and lay leaders exploring the vision of providing safe spaces for people in substance abuse recovery and sacred spaces for nontraditional worship.

When the team agreed to the idea of opening a coffee shop with an intentional gathering space for recovery groups, worship and Christian education opportunities, Brown jokes that she never imagined God would be calling her in retirement to serve as a barista.

While the pandemic slowed the coffeehouse project, Brown said, “In hindsight, the time away from meetings allowed for needed research and spiritual reflection.” Her research included working through the challenges of becoming a nonprofit. When the team realized they did not meet the IRS standards for nonprofit status as a church-owned coffee shop, they decided to operate under two entities: a for-profit business for the coffee shop and a nonprofit for the new worshiping community. With legalities squared away and a name created for the new venture, it was time for Brown to learn the tools of the coffee trade.

In the summer of 2021, Brown attended the Texas Coffee School, a three-day master class on starting a coffee shop. The class offered hands-on coffee education and barista training. The coffee school brought clarity to the project’s vision. As Brown learned the techniques of making lattes and cappuccinos, she also learned the high costs of specialty drinks.

Brown returned to Martinsburg and shared her findings. It was decided that the coffeehouse would be niche for freshly ground, fair trade coffee at a reasonable price and not a specialty coffee shop. They would also offer a variety of teas, sodas, iced coffees and precooked baked goods and be open six days a week, morning through early evening. The coffee shop would not offer free food or drink. Instead, staff and volunteers would learn how to direct patrons to local agencies that provide food, housing and substance abuse treatment.

In December 2021, the team received a second grant, which provided the startup funds for the business. They leased a space in downtown Martinsburg for the coffee shop and incorporated as Community Cup Coffee & More LLC. Brown and her husband, John, have spent hours ordering equipment, refinishing floors, choosing paint colors, meeting with city officials and selecting a contractor. The years of hard work and discernment have not diminished Brown’s joy in opening a coffee shop.

“We firmly believe that we were led by the Holy Spirit to create this new worshiping community and ultimately to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with people in downtown Martinsburg,” said Brown. “In addition, we believe that we can be a blessing to the community — to everyone — including those who never choose to join us in worship.”

And while making a good cup of coffee is a coveted skill, it’s not the only one workers at Community Cup Coffee & More will have. Brown said that staff and volunteers would be trained on best practices for serving customers with mental illnesses.

The Rev. April H. Cranford is the pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Waynesboro, Virginia. Cranford and her avid-angler husband, Reed, reside in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with their two daughters. She writes a monthly faith column for the local newspaper.

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