When he dropped off his resume two years ago, Moses Lee didn’t know the history of Coffee Lab. He had visited their old location years ago, a smaller shop with limited seating — a shop that was still owned by Garrett Theological Seminary (GTS).
The original Coffee Lab that Lee visited opened under GTS in 2012, but experienced a financial crisis roughly two years in that led to a transition of power. Chris An, who served as part-time manager, bought the business from the Seminary and began Beyond Coffee and Beyond Church (BCBC) Coffee Lab.When Lee first interviewed for a job with BCBC Coffee Lab in 2016, An ran the shop in Evanston.
“I remember when I was interviewing with Chris, he did tell me the history,” Lee says. “He didn’t say it like ‘Oh, we are a religious or Christian establishment’, but he did say that we first and foremost take care of our neighbors. I think that is a little biblical, but I think you can also interpret that however you want to.”
To many, however, the history of Coffee Lab and its ties to Christianity are a surprise. Reena Burt, a SESP sophomore studying social policy and economics, learned about Coffee Lab from her older brother. The two would frequent the shop together, but she never suspected it had religious ties.
“I don’t think their connection to the church in any way as an organization really bothers me, as long as while I’m in the space they don’t try and attempt to convert me,” Burt says. “If the space itself is very secular, I’m okay with that.”
Nathan Reiff, a junior studying learning sciences, worked at Coffee Lab last summer. He had a similar experience to Lee; he was told in his interview about the religious dimensions of Coffee Lab. One example he notes is an employee Bible study that is offered for those who want to be involved.
BCBC Coffee Lab’s mission — to take care of your neighbor — is echoed by managers, employees and the company’s website. To An, Coffee Lab’s mission separates it from any other coffee shop in the area. He sees religiosity as impacting his company’s customer service, the way that he operates the business.
“We have a different motivation as to why we do our business,” An says. “We are looking to practice God’s love. We focus on human beings more than other coffee shops. I train our staff to focus on other staff and customers and the people around us. It’s not just one cup of coffee; it’s sharing our love.”
One of the ways this mission is translated into action is through Coffee Lab’s collaboration with Connections for the Homeless in Evanston. According to An, Coffee Lab has set up a program to train members of the homeless community as baristas. Some are hired, and others leave with skills to put on a resume. The shop also donates less perishable items – scones, cookies and muffins – at the end of the day.For Greg Dunn, the café’s general manager, the priority is making Coffee Lab an open space for conversation between all identities.
“We appreciate Christians coming to work here and we appreciate Muslims coming to work here,” Dunn says. “We have open discussions about [religious] things, but don’t be upset if you hear things that you don’t wanna hear. No one is pointing a finger at you, and we don’t let conversations go to a point where it’s really overwhelming for our belief system.”
He acknowledged that sometimes open conversation, however, leads to open disagreement. “We try to keep it level to some degree,” Dunn says. “There was a time where ... there were some disagreements between folks. It’s not up for us to tell someone what to believe, things like that. We do our best to balance everything.”
Lee, the sophomore who has worked at Coffee Lab for two years, has witnessed his fair share of tension between employees. He said that usually tension arises when one employee feels like another is too imposing about starting religious dialogue, and even recalls when a staff member switched shifts to avoid conversations with another employee.
“Sometimes this [religious] co-worker would talk to [the non-religious co-worker] about religion and God,” Lee said. “This co-worker had already explicitly stated that they weren’t really interested. But I think the other person didn’t quite get it and just kept persisting, and then after a certain point they got pretty upset and they switched shifts — you have to like the person that you’re working with in a coffee shop.”
It is important to note, however, that these religious conversations are usually limited to employees. “We try not to open conversation with customers too much,” Dunn said. “If it comes up, we’re very open to discussion, but we don’t force conversation, and we don’t try to guide it to a certain area.”
But sometimes conversations are bound to start. There are a variety of Christian elements to BCBC Coffee Lab (aside from the BCBC part). On top of the monthly Bible study group, in a Chick-fil-A manner, Coffee Lab is also closed on Sundays. And, if you pay close attention, you will notice variations of the Bible sitting on the bookshelves of Coffee Lab, tucked between sequels of the Eragon series, cookbooks and canyon hiking guides. Reiff, who was raised Jewish but is not religious, was initially turned off by the Christian aspects of Coffee Lab.
“I was weirded out by the religious stuff at first,” Reiff said. “But recently I’ve been like — it doesn’t make a difference at all. I still enjoy the place a lot, and I’ve realized that doesn’t make a difference to the product that they’re delivering.”