GATE DISTRICT – Around here, you can buy a bike in a coffeehouse, and you can watch an aspiring folk singer in a coffeehouse. You can read a book in a coffeehouse, and access the internet.
You can even go to church in a coffeehouse, if you head to Crave Coffeehouse at 3500 Caroline Street. From 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, you can grab a brew and surf the web at socially distanced tables in a restored 153-year-old church building.
On weekends, Crave becomes Reliant Church, a “sent” city campus of Christ Memorial Lutheran Church in south St. Louis County. Chairs are rearranged for a modern Lutheran liturgy service at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.
The church also rents its space out for 6 p.m. Saturday services of Kingdom Church. Members of that church set up chairs for that service, and members of Reliant Church set up tables and chairs for the coffeehouse after their Sunday service. Members also meet in small community groups.
“For us, the value is ultimately the Gospel,” said the Rev. Bobby Walston, site pastor of Reliant Church and associate pastor of Christ Memorial Lutheran Church.
The coffee shop and church had their start in the mid-2000s, but there has been a continuously operating Lutheran Church at the site since 1868.
“In 2005, they were seeing a decline in membership of the church and the neighborhood,” said Walston, who has been site pastor at Reliant Church since 2014. “The neighborhood was changing, along with the growth of the [St. Louis University] campus, and so the congregation along with some other Lutheran churches in the area decided to renovate the space. From that grew the church and coffee shop, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the church.
“Coffeehouses are gathering spaces for people, and we value people above no one else,” Walston said. “And if we can provide a safe space and a comfortable place for them to gather, then it allows us to serve them and show God’s love.”
Today, Walston thinks so much of the coffee shop ministry that he does office work at a table there.
“When people find out I’m a pastor, there tends to be one of two reactions,” Walston said. “They either open up and have a lot of questions, or they tend to get quiet.”
Out of a membership of about 125, about a dozen came through the coffeehouse. In general, members are a mix of Gate District residents and medical school students and administrators at St. Louis University.
“I’ve been a regular for about three years,” said Main, as he looked up from his laptop. But he first learned about it when he attended a wedding.
“It’s a convenient place to meet people,” said Main, who lives in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood. “Right now with COVID, I don’t have a lot of options to work from my office. It’s either here or home.”
People react in different ways when they see that a coffeehouse is in a church building, said coffeehouse operations manager Pamela Dickerson, a church member who has been coffeehouse operations manager for about two years.
“It depends on who asks,” she noted. “Mostly it’s curiosity.”
“I love the concept,” Dickerson added.
The coming of COVID-19 gave the church and the coffeehouse a chance to demonstrate their service. From April to June, with the church closed because of the pandemic, furloughed baristas raised money to prepare more than 1,000 meals for medical workers at SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital and SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. They also raised money so they could donate food to 15 families for five weeks.
“It was a blessing to be able to serve at a very critical time,” Dickerson said.
“This kind of encapsulates what we’re about,” Walston said. “We want to serve the community.”