Christian coffeehouses are more than a cup of Joe

Posted: Friday, September 07, 2001

EAST NORTHPORT, N.Y. (AP) -- Henry Sanchez was reluctant to restart his social life after his wife of 27 years, Barbara, died from breast cancer last December.

His attitude changed after he found Samantha's ''Li'l Bit of Heaven,'' a boutique-turned-Christian coffeehouse on Long Island. A warm hello from the proprieter, Samantha Tetro, and a supportive environment has made him a regular on Friday nights.

''I got this great big greeting when I came in the door,'' the 52-year-old Sanchez said. ''She held my hand and we sat on the couch.''

Tetro, who calls herself a messianic Jew -- meaning a Jew who has accepted Jesus Christ as his or her savior -- opened the coffeehouse in 1994. Her goal was to create a place where people could make new friends, find solace and experience the love of God.

''I was watching the news and the news was so horrible I started to grieve in my spirit,'' Tetro recalled. ''I shut the TV off and cried out to God: 'What's wrong with this world? Can't there be a little heaven on Earth?' And that's where the name came from.''

Tetro's friends encouraged her to pursue the project and helped her get the donations she needed to open the coffeehouse in the clothing store she used to run.

Inside, tables with inspirational Christian literature surround a stage. Framed artwork with Scripture and Christian messages hang on the wall. Customers can choose from a selection of pastry and drinks.

Though not affiliated with any church or religious organization, ''Heaven'' resembles a full-service ministry. There are programs on bereavement and for the divorced and single. The place also hosts a ''Glory on Wheels'' night for the physically challenged and a night of fellowship for U.S. military veterans. Tetro offers video seminars and Bible workshops, and invites guest speakers.

Tetro, 44, estimates 30,000 people have come to the coffeehouse, including some from as far away as Russia and Malaysia.

''It's kind of like the United Nations when you come in,'' Tetro said.

About 20 couples have met there and married, she says.

Christian coffeehouses became popular in the late 1960s and early '70s as part of the ''Jesus movement,'' during which some hippies began following Christ.

The coffeehouses died out by the 1980s as people in the movement got older, married and had less interest in organizing social gatherings. However, the establishments have regained popularity as Christians seek innovative ways to reach people. The Catholic Charismatic Center, which lists Christian coffeehouses on its Web site, has a record of at least one in every state.

In National City, Calif., just outside San Diego, Betty McCoy and her husband founded the ''Steamed Bean Coffee House'' seven years ago. The neighborhood had some rough sections, and she said pimps and drug dealers were among her customers. She said some Christian musicians would not perform there because of the area's reputation, but she persevered despite the challenges.

''God has kept us here,'' she said.

Now, her customers include some college students, as a redevelopment project improves the neighborhood.

In Missouri, Don Sharp runs ''The Gathering Place'' coffeehouse, in Baden, a poor section of northeast St. Louis. Sharp, pastor of the Church of God Independent Holiness People, uses the coffeehouse to dispel misconceptions about the area.

''People have a negative view of north St. Louis,'' Sharp explained. ''This allows them to come and see what we have here and take that knowledge home with them.''

Still, ministering to the neighborhood is a central goal.

Sharp's facility also has a day care center, clothing ministry and food service. He even allows people who are struggling or in crisis stay at his home.

Many of the bands Sharp books are affiliated with Christian youth groups that travel with the musicians to the coffeehouse gigs, staying in the neighborhood for as long as a week doing service projects.

On Saturday night, while music is playing, volunteers set clothes outside ''The Gathering Place'' for needy neighbors to pick through.

''It's designed to show people the love of Christ and guide them into that kind of relationship,'' Sharp said.

Tetro's greatest satisfaction is when programs at ''Li'l Bit of Heaven'' help people address their life problems.

''I'm in awe,'' she said. '' I know God made something out of nothing.''


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