The fact that there is a coffee house in the bell tower is not what is unusual at Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church. Nor is the fact that it’s run on volunteers and donations. What might be the most unusual element at Mt. Tabor is the leadership’s willingness to not start out with a carefully defined goal but to instead let the mission find them.
“We deliberately said among ourselves, ‘We’ll open the door and see what comes and we’re going to help people do what they want to do here,’” said the Rev. Carley Friesen, pastor. “And that was a very deliberate and intentional way to do it. This is not the church doing something for the community but the church and the community working together and that is a huge part of this.”
That this, known as TaborSpace, is now a thriving community center hosting everything from musical performances and child-focused storytelling to documentaries on the environment and Sunday morning worship. In a beautiful hospitality room that was once abandoned by even the congregation, TaborSpace is now a vibrant and light-filled place where volunteer barristas get to “love up on people like Jesus did,” as one recently reported to Mt. Tabor’s session.
Most significant of all, neighbors, once strangers to the stone-walled building and the congregation aging within, now come and share much of the life of the building rather than grumble about all the Sunday parking clogging up their streets.
“People come and ask me, ‘This is is really cool, how can we do this at our church?’” Friesen said. “I tell them, ‘Well, you have to get to know your neighbors first. You get to know your neighbors and find out they want to do and how you need to help make it happen. You might or might not end up with a coffee shop.’ They want to reproduce the coffee shop and that just happened to be our gift because we have this incredible space, so that’s the resource we offer back to the community. But everyone has a different resource.”
During the week, visitors enter TaborSpace through a door at the base of the bell tower. Once a room used to store choir robes, it is now a simple, cozy space with a bench and a few tables near the door and a step up to the coffee counter.
“The contractor wanted the space to look like a British pub, very welcoming. His brother is a vicar in England, he totally got what we were trying to do,” Friesen said.
Buying a latte and muffin works like it does at pretty much any other coffee shop until it comes time to pay. “Please pay what you want,” the barrista says, pointing at a box in front of the cash register. “This is a service the congregation is offering to the neighborhood. It’s an older congregation and they need some help with the maintenance, so give whatever you want.”
“Because it’s a suggested donation rather than a set price, we get to tell the story all day long,” Friesen said. “It’s part of what makes this place different — you get to be welcoming and you get to invite people to be generous, to give rather than pay. We work in a gift economy where we share out of abundance and enough for all, not an exchange economy of accumulating and hoarding. Someone comes in, they don’t have enough, we tell them it’s OK and invite them to pay whatever they can. Someone hands us a twenty, we give them twenty back in change and then invite them to pay what they want to pay.”
Traditional wisdom would suggest that this is a sure fire way to go broke, but the annual report for 2010 reveals that more than half of the congregation’s income came from non-pledging sources such as building rent and the TaborSpace.
From concerts to knitting circles to acoustic jams, the Parish Building and the Copeland Commons room adjacent to the coffee bar are filled with activity that brings in people who’d normally never set foot within the once-grand church.
“We have five to 10 requests for the space per day,” Friesen said. “We’re starting to filter them. Because we wanted to live into this first, we now realize what our values are for this space, what we want to happen. We’re trying to do things that are creative and healing and community-building.”
Creativity and healing are hallmarks of the TaborSpace experience, from inception to current practice.
Mt. Tabor is a grand church, built of massive stones and large timbers in the 1900s Craftsman style. It became the “it” place for hundreds of WWII vets and their families to worship. They also significantly remodeled the building in the mid-century to accommodate new office space and install a magnificent pipe organ in the sanctuary. Yet, as is the story in many places, the congregation became removed from the neighborhood as it aged. What once served as an overflow room for the sanctuary became a storage space.
“I walked in there when I first came to the church,” Friesen said. “I moved some things around and saw there was a fireplace. The room was filled with junk and I said, ‘This isn’t okay, we can’t do this.’”
Now the Copeland Commons, a vaulted stone and wood-beamed room has bistro tables and chairs scattered in clusters around the room. Underneath a great yellow stained glass setting are longer library tables projecting out from the south wall with study lamps set on each. On a Friday afternoon, three men, each at their own table, look deep into their laptop screens. Comfortable leather couches are set in a corner and by the fireplace centered on the east wall. On the west wall are another set of smaller stained glass windows, a narrow bar and a children’s play area next to the door leading to the rest of the church. “It’s Holy Space,” Friesen said. “It’s fun to watch people come into the room for the first time and see how their jaw just drops.”
The gifts of letting things happen without control is evident in the 9 a.m. worship now being held in the coffee shop area. Early on a Sunday morning in mid-February, about 15 men and women gather around the bistro tables as Friesen stands close by, moderating a lively discussion based on Matthew 5 and what it means to be righteous.
“I just came into the coffee shop last week,” Lisa Carberry said after the early worship service. Carberry was a first-time visitor to the service that morning. “I saw they had this beautiful space and I’m a Christian that can never find a church. So I went online and came here.”
Carberry especially appreciated the informality as well as the warm welcome she received.
“I grew up a Catholic but I left because I felt too much like a sinner. All I ever heard was judgment and I already felt bad growing up in an alcoholic family. But this was a discussion between searchers and people who love Jesus and are trying to figure him out and that’s really the kind of Christian I am,” she said.
Reneé Carter and her 8-year-old son, Tyler Mapes, also appreciate the informality as well as the depth of discussion.
“Getting out the door every morning by 8:15 or 8:30 or even 9 a.m. because of school or soccer or whatever is hard. So I’m a little more loosey-goosey on Sunday,” Carter said. “We started coming because Tyler was asking questions about religions and I wanted him to explore for himself. We came here and never left. He plays piano for the older people, he asks them about World War II. I know he listens to the discussions. It gives both of us a chance to stop and think about things we probably wouldn’t stop to think about rushing off to soccer or school or any of life’s daily grind.”
“I’m one of the older ones who think this is a great idea,” fifty-year member Mary Smith said after the 9 a.m. worship service. “The church needs some pep, some youth to it. This is it.”
“We get to feel Jesus’ teaching a lot,” Friesen said about how TaborSpace programs have grown into and with the neighborhood. “We get to be generous, and that generosity comes back in so many ways. Not in the exact way you extend it but in so many amazing ways that after a while, you begin to trust it.”
Friesen’s ability to trust that what is needed will come was made literally clear when Mt. Tabor celebrated the opening of TaborSpace with a meal of Stone Soup.
“I just put some pots of water on the stove, people brought stuff and we let it cook during worship. We made soup out of what came.”
Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church makes church, makes community, out of who comes in through TaborSpace.
Anitra Kitts is a freelance writer in Santa Rosa, Calif., and a candidate for the ministry certified as ready to receive a call by Cascades Presbytery.