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What Would Jesus Brew?

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On a balcony above the sanctuary of Redeemer Church in Park Ridge, a man sits at a wooden table, hunched over paperwork. Across the room, two young women on an overstuffed couch engage in animated conversation, sipping coffee. Light filtering through immense stained glass windows casts a golden glow over the room, and live acoustic guitar music bounces off the wooden beams of the cathedral's ceiling. There are racks full of magazines--Harper's, the Atlantic, Christianity Today. "Starbucks would give their eyeteeth for a place like this," boasts Pastor Fred Nelson, a lanky, bearded 48-year-old in a sweater. Nelson is Redeemer's copastor and the driving force behind the church's new coffee shop, Sanctuary Cafe.

One evening a couple years ago Nelson was sitting alone on the balcony. Beams from an outdoor light illuminated the stained glass. "I thought, What a fantastic space--it's too bad more people can't appreciate it," he says. About the same time, the Lutheran church got a flood of new parishioners in their 20s and 30s, many who drove there from the city--attracted, Nelson believes, by the church's new Web site and a just-released CD of the church band's alt-Christian music. "They would connect with each other in worship, and then after service linger for a moment before going their separate ways," he says. He and his wife, Pastor Carol Breimeier, gamely removed seven rows of pews from the back of the church and set up tables and coffee service, which attracted more lingerers. A few of them brought up the idea of opening a cafe. Nelson brought the idea to his congregation, who approved it unanimously.

Last spring the project was awarded a $6,000 grant by the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, the local ecclesiastical council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Most of the money went for furniture and promotional materials. Almost all the labor on the place has been free--parishioners volunteered for everything from stripping the white tiles off the balcony's floor and refinishing the hardwood beneath to designing a logo and manning the espresso machines.

Lots of houses of worship sponsor after-school social programs aimed at keeping kids off the streets, but Nelson makes it clear that Sanctuary Cafe is different. The coffeehouse, he says, was designed by and for people in their 20s and 30s: "That's the bull's-eye. We wanted to provide young people with another option to mix and mingle besides the bar scene." Though he feels "called by God to do this," he isn't interested in proselytizing: "What we wanted to do is break down ideas that God space and people space are two separate things. Young people especially have hang-ups about entering a sanctuary. We want to show them that it isn't so bad or so scary or so forbidding or so unfun, and that these people here aren't so weird. If they end up joining the church, fine. If it makes them more comfortable going back to the Catholic church that they haven't been to in years, that's good too. But mostly we just want to show them that a church is a place where older people and younger people can have a great time."

Even nonbelievers are welcome, says Nelson: "If you like music and coffee, yeah. We're Christians; we're not ashamed of that. But you won't find any in-your-face attitude." Since opening last month the cafe's attracted a slow but steady stream of primarily young adults--by and large nonparishioners with varying degrees of religious belief. Alan Clark stops in at the cafe almost every week on his way from his job in Rolling Meadows to his Lincoln Park home. Although he doesn't practice any particular faith, Clark is unfazed by the nonsecular setting. "It wouldn't bother me either way," he says. The 31-year-old just moved to Chicago from Scotland a month ago. Stopping at the cafe, which he heard about from a friend who belongs to Redeemer, is an opportunity to relax and potentially meet new friends. "I don't know many people," he says, "but I do like coffee."

For now Sanctuary's open just Friday nights from 7:30 to 11 PM. "We have to walk before we run," says Nelson. The volunteer staffers all have full-time jobs, and he doesn't want them to burn out. If enough people turn out on Fridays, though, they'll consider expanding their hours. "We don't have a business plan like that," he says. "It depends on how it evolves."

Like any cafe, Sanctuary (whose motto is "caffeinate your spirit") brews an assortment of coffee drinks--suggested donations are $1 for a regular cuppa and $2 for espresso drinks. Nelson says they never even considered charging customers outright--running that kind of a business seemed too complicated; besides, no one who works there makes any money from it. Any profits go back into the cafe. Sanctuary also offers a variety of baked goods made fresh every week by parishioner Susan Parenti--the biggest sellers are "anything chocolate," she says.

Yvonna Wise, who lives in Lakeview and joined the church two months ago, is a waitress and occasional hostess at the cafe. She's ecstatic about its potential to "bring artists together in a different kind of space" and looks forward to poetry slams, open-mike nights, and talent nights, which she says will begin as soon as there's enough interest. She enthusiastically runs down a list of entertainment that's already lined up, including singer-songwriters and a percussion group. When there's no live act, the cafe plays contemporary Christian, ambient, and world-music CDs. (So far that hot church band has no plans to play there.)

There's also talk, if everything goes well, of opening up an adjoining courtyard for outdoor seating in the summer. "That's what we'd like to do," says Nelson, "but of course we'll have to see how things go. Not everything is in our control. But if God blesses us, then that is what we'll do."

Sanctuary Cafe is at 1006 Gillick, Park Ridge,

847-823-3634.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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