A new brew in Tuscaloosa
By Sue Washburn | Presbyterians Today
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Meeting for coffee is a Presbyterian tradition. Whether it’s in a fellowship hall, a Sunday school room or a hip espresso shop, coffee and community are often connected. First Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is hoping that a new coffee shop will help connect college students from the University of Alabama with Christ. Named UPerk, the venture is an outreach of the UKirk program, a ministry that seeks to empower members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) engaged in campus ministry.
The idea for a coffee shop had been percolating for three years inside of James Goodlet, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church and community pastor/director of UPerk. He hopes that the coffee shop will be a welcoming space and community center as it not only serves traditional coffee shop fare but intentionally creates partnerships with area service agencies and initiatives. A portion of each sale will support the ministry and mission partnerships.
“For three years, we’ve been dreaming of creating a space downtown that’d be more than a coffee shop; it’d be a community center,” Goodlet said. A coffee shop can be welcoming space to gather for students who might not feel comfortable at a church.
UPerk is a typical coffee shop that transforms to a worship space on Tuesday nights. The service is low-key and the music is laid-back. Sermons are more like conversations than prepared speeches as the participants seek to share their lives together.
“UPerk offers a community space for people to explore their beliefs in a less-intimidating space,” said Claire Collins, a senior math and finance major who is one of the interns helping to organize UPerk. “Someone could just be having a coffee on a Tuesday night and see UKirk worshiping and decide to come over and join us. It offers an intentional, authentic environment that allows us to engage with the community in many different ways.”
Walter Kahrs, a sophomore studying mechanical engineering, is in charge of hospitality. He said that UPerk is a Christ-centered community, but for him, it’s not a replacement for traditional church. He attends First Presbyterian each Sunday, but finds Christian friends and fellowship at UPerk.
“We are a family that once a week sings hymns along with modern songs, has communion and reads Bible verses. But we are so much more than that,” he said. “We go see movies together, have lunch together and study together. The biggest things UKirk has to offer is what is not on Tuesday night (not to say Tuesday night isn’t great! I love it!), it’s the friendship and the fellowship we have all day every day.”
Goodlet says he’s noticed that over the years new faces are drawn in with a more casual approach to creating Christian community with UKirk. However, he tries to connect the students with traditional congregations, recognizing that when they leave college they may not find the kind of alternative worship UKirk offers on campuses.
“We want folks to say that’s a great cup of coffee they serve, a great pastry, but did you know they worship here? Did you know they’re involved in service projects in the community here, like building a Habitat house through church initiative?” Goodlet said.
While UPerk is sponsored by First Presbyterian Church with the help of other PC(USA)congregations, the emphasis is on student involvement. Interns plan the weekly worship services, gather resources and do the set up and tear down for worship. Interns are also responsible for community outreach to other students.
“It’s great to see students taking ownership of space created for them,” Goodlet said. “I think the whole thing has been a gift to see how God has worked through this three-year process.”
UPerk is not just intentional about worship, outreach and student involvement. It’s also intentional about the coffee, tea and food it serves. The menu offers creative interpretations of traditional Southern dishes, and ingredients come from local producers. It also includes vegan and gluten-free options.
“UPerk tries to partner with local companies as much as possible,” Collins said. “We also intentionally have coffee that supports direct trade.” UPerk’s roaster works directly with farmers in coffee-producing countries rather the relying on a fair-trade cooperative.
The coffee shop was packed for the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony as students, church members and even the mayor of Tuscaloosa showed up to celebrate. The first worship service didn’t just focus on the coffee, but leaders offered something more — the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
Intern Britton Williams, a junior economics and Spanish major, hopes that UPerk becomes a community fixture and part of the social scene.
“My hope is that UPerk will become known as a place that is welcoming to all. Ideally, we’ll become a classic coffee house in Tuscaloosa that’s known for adding a special something to the community — and one that honors God and God’s mission for the city and the University of Alabama.”
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