Over the New Year holiday, my wife and daughter and I took a trip to visit the town where my parents live (I refer to it that way because, although I grew up visiting it frequently to see grandparents and other relatives, my parents didn’t move there until after I’d left home for college). Apart from seeing loved family members, whenever we make this trip we tend to have fairly predictable patterns: we will want (and hopefully have) good North Carolina coast seafood, we will watch lots of cartoons (not having cable at home makes Spongebob a nice treat for me), we’ll drink Cheerwine, and we’ll visit Muddy Waters Coffeehouse.
All of these things are wonderful for us, but it’s that semi-annual coffeehouse visit I want to talk about at the moment. Muddy Waters is the kind of indie coffeehouse that we love – they make fair trade (they use Counter Culture like many of our favorite shops in Atlanta), high quality products, they know their stuff, and they’ve created an atmosphere around art and culture. I’d say it is easily the best coffee for a hundred miles in any direction, and it stands up well to the best shops in bigger cities. This is a fascinating quality for such a small town to have, and this is one of the reasons we make sure to visit it every time we’re there.
Now, while I find all this by itself to indeed be praiseworthy, I was struck by different qualities on this visit, and was reminded of some of my own passions and dreams. It started while I was looking around at the various flyers on the wall. Like any good coffeehouse, they advertize local events, especially of the artistic kind. I happened to notice that, at the time, they were advertizing (and presumably sponsoring as well, from the appearance) a play about the Freedom Riders.
Again, Elizabeth City is a small, longstanding, rural Southern town. It was the location of a Civil War battle. It has its share of racial issues to this day, and I don’t know of any particular significance it has played in North Carolina’s various civil rights struggles. So it’s noteworthy, at least to me, that they’d even have such an event. Knowing that it was happening, it doesn’t at all surprise me that an artsy coffeehouse would sponsor or feature it, but that’s what got me thinking: this little coffeehouse in this little town is contributing, in a fairly significant way, to creating culture where it is.
When I was in college, especially after getting together with my wife, we had a dream to open a coffeehouse of our own. By no means would it be a “Christian coffeehouse” but it would have been a coffeehouse that, as part of its identity, had a faith community. One could be a part of the coffeehouse’s artistic and cultural community without any involvement in the faith community, and so on. But we would offer art, music, community, spirituality, and wonderful coffee together in this space to anyone who wanted it and that would be our ministry. We could keep our various other interests (academia, web design, etc. as we followed them). But we left that behind, to a large extent, when we learned exactly how much student debt we had and how hard it is to create a financially sustainable coffeehouse, and since then we’ve been part of various alternative, emerging or Emergent faith communities that existed in other settings.
But on some level we haven’t forgotten that dream, and the hope we had to live among the people of a neighborhood and help create community and culture in it. To seek justice and peace there, and offer a chance to encounter God in a beautiful place with great drinks. And I was reminded sharply of it when I reflected on what Muddy’s is doing. That isn’t to say that they do or don’t have any interest at all in spiritual things, or that we would ever consider creating a thing in a small town as they’ve done. But it is to say that seeing them immersed in their own context, creating what they do, gave me a picture that I haven’t had in a while of how we had thought of immersing ourselves and creating something as well.
I don’t say that we’re going to do anything like this, either now or ever, necessarily. But I do say it was wonderful to think about again, and I want to mark that.
Jonathan Stegall is a web designer and emergent / emerging follower of Jesus currently living in Atlanta, seeking to abide in the creative tension between theology, spirituality, design, and justice.
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