Tuscaloosa’s Forest Lake Baptist opens coffeehouse to reach college studentscomment (1)
June 21, 2012
By Sammie Jo Barstow
In the spring of 2011, Forest Lake Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa, was in a time of decision-making, but little did they realize what challenging decisions they would face after the April 27 storms caused $2 million in damage to the church structures.
Three years earlier, Pastor Donald Payne told the congregation that he felt God leading the Tuscaloosa Baptist Association church to boldly reach out to the numerous college students in the neighborhoods surrounding the church. He envisioned a coffeehouse where students and others in the community could socialize, study and enjoy a cup of gourmet coffee in a relaxed, friendly setting.
“The church embraced the vision, but we sat on it for more than a year in disobedience. We hadn’t followed through with that step of faith,” Payne said. They also faced staff changes and financial challenges, so the plan seemed stalled.
In March 2011, the church purchased an adjoining piece of property with a small, older house. The congregation discussed remodeling the existing structure into a coffeehouse. One month after the closing date, it was destroyed in the April tornado.
“We were told that if we didn’t rebuild on the property we would lose a significant amount of the insurance money,” Payne said. “Our folks rose to the occasion and made sacrificial commitments. Those commitments, coupled with the insurance proceeds, helped us construct Nehemiah’s Coffeehouse.”
Jim Swedenburg, director of the office of Cooperative Program and stewardship development for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, assisted the church in developing a fundraising campaign.
Though the final result looked nothing like the original plan, the vision for the coffeehouse became a reality. The modern 3,200-square-foot brick structure includes the coffeehouse area on the first floor and a three-bedroom apartment for the college minister, Aaron Barnes, and his wife, Leesa, on the second floor.
Shortly before the church was damaged, the congregation had interviewed Barnes for the position of minister to college students. When plans to build the coffeehouse were initiated, they moved quickly to call the young couple to fill that position.
Even the choice of the name for the new ministry fit perfectly with the circumstances. Before the storm, Payne had been preaching a sermon series on Nehemiah. The following Sunday, as they met in temporary facilities, he felt led to continue that study about the Old Testament prophet God called to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem.
Payne laughingly credits Barnes with observing that Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in 52 days, but it took 52 weeks to build the coffeehouse and repair the damage to their church.
A dedication service was held April 29, 2012, followed by a “soft” opening to provide time for training the 40 volunteers who work the coffeehouse. Volunteers are called “cupbearers” because Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the king.
A grand opening celebration was held June 2. It included a ribbon cutting and special drawings for a Nook reader and gift cards for Nehemiah’s. At the celebration, Payne quoted Nehemiah: “the God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build” (Neh. 2:20).
Longtime church member and Nehemiah’s volunteer Linda Wright is excited about the impact the coffeehouse will have.
“I think it is going to be such a wonderful outreach to the community, especially the students,” Wright said. “I also see it bringing the church family together more as people come here and get to know each other better.”
Priscilla Martin joined the church the Sunday after the grand opening. She said the coffeehouse demonstrated to her that “these people had a vision and they were doing something about it. I wanted to be part of that.”
But the main goal for Nehemiah’s Coffeehouse is not to sell coffee or even to provide a comfortable atmosphere for visitors. Payne and Barnes call the coffeehouse a “low-pressure zone,” meaning the emphasis will be on building relationships with the ultimate intention of telling visitors about Jesus.
“Our church mission statement is ‘To Love God and Love People to Jesus,’ and that’s what we intend to do at Nehemiah’s Coffeehouse,” Barnes said.
Barnes is looking forward to the students’ return to campus in August.
“We’ll definitely be open on game days so people can gather here and watch the game, and we’ll plan some tailgating parties for the front lawn, too,” he said.
“We have a community that was devastated a year ago, and we lost some of our cohesiveness,” Payne said. “We need a chance just to come together and build relationships, and that’s what Nehemiah’s Coffeehouse will provide.”
Payne said the congregation has learned some valuable lessons through this difficult time.
“If we’ll be faithful, God will do what He promised to do, and His way is far better than anything we do,” he said. “A lot of times, we know that mentally and perhaps even emotionally, but it’s different to know it practically in how you live day to day. That’s what we learned — day-to-day dependence on God.”
The church welcomes visitors passing through Tuscaloosa to visit Nehemiah’s on the corner of 18th Street and 1st Avenue in the Forest Lake neighborhood.