Idea takes wing as Topeka coffeeshop ministry nears opening

David Burke

4/13/2021

The quetzal is an iridescent green-gold bird with a red belly found in forests and humid highlands. 

A quetzal. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

“It’s a really rare bird that most people don’t get a chance to see,” the Rev. Christine Scott-Potter explains. “People consider themselves fortunate to see two flying together. It’s kind of like a God moment to see a quetzal.” 

Scott-Potter hopes to capture that spirit with the launch of Café Quetzal (pronounced KATE-zuhl), tentatively scheduled for early July. 

The namesake of the coffeehouse ministry, at the corner of 21st and Belle in Topeka, has added significance for Scott-Potter, as it’s the national bird of Guatemala, where she has spent several soulfully satisfying experiences on mission trips. 

“The bird symbolizes that freedom and God the creator, majesty, wonder — sort of the unknown in some ways, this transcendence we experience when we have God experiences similar to what we have with the quetzal,” she said. “It’s a bird that symbolizes freedom, and part of the mission of this church is to kind of free the church from the brick-and-mortar church building for other expressions.” 

It’s also rare, Scott-Potter says, and can’t survive in captivity due to its large tail. 

“All those things the bird evokes really feels like it fits the spirit of what we’re trying to do here at the café,” she said. 

 

Potter to planter 

Sitting amid the construction on the coffeehouse, Christine Scott-Potter says the last thing she ever expected to do was grow her own church. 

“I had never really intended to be a planter, but love innovation, love to be creative,” she said. 

She was encouraged by her district superintendent at the time, the Rev. Kay Scarbrough, to join a New Church Development incubator in the Great Plains Conference in 2019. 

“It was presented as ways to explore creative new ministries, whether it’s a new church or inside your church,” she said of the five-month process. 

Scott-Potter tried some of the suggestions for different worship processes while she was an associate pastor at Topeka Countryside UMC. 

Among the presenters was the Rev. Debra McKnight, whose Urban Abbey UMC in Omaha — a combination coffeehouse, retail space and church — will celebrate its 10th anniversary this fall. The space, McKnight told the group, reaches those who consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious,” and looking for meaning in their lives. 

“A light bulb went off, and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do. This is the kind of community that I feel like Topeka is yearning for,’” Scott-Potter said of her hometown. 

She received financial support from the conference after a “Shark Tank” presentation last year, and her pastoral appointment for the 2020-21 conference year was split between Countryside and developing Café Quetzal, while her fulltime appointment begins July 1, days before she hopes to open the doors. 

 

Location, location … 

With the help of a retired Realtor who is a Countryside member, Scott-Potter scouted several spots and was hoping for the Campus House, the home of Washburn University United Methodist Campus Ministry, but between red tape and zoning restrictions, “everything just got really complicated,” she said.  

Rev. Christine Scott-Potter shows the interior of Cafe Quetzal, scheduled to open in July. Photo by David Burke

“When it starts to feel like you’re coming up against a wall, it’s the Holy Spirit telling you, ‘Maybe a different route is the better route to go,’” she said. 

She and the Realtor returned to the first place they scouted: The former Lazlo’s Coffee, which closed permanently after 17 years of business in May 2020 after a coronavirus-based shutdown that March.  

“We walked in here and said, ‘We could potentially not change anything and just move in here,’” Scott-Potter said. “We could really see ourselves here.” 

A kitchen, which she was told would be the biggest renovation expense, was already in place as was an area to brew coffee. 

Café Quetzal will share space in a strip mall with a lighting center, a home design shop, a hair salon and a business-equipment store. Although there are coffeeshops a few blocks away in Fairlawn Plaza — Scott-Potter’s favorite — and inside a nearby thrift store, it is nearly two miles from the nearest Starbucks. 

 

Reaching out 

Café Quetzal is currently in “demo phase” — or demolition for those unfamiliar with HGTV vernacular.  

The Rev. Jeff Scott-Potter, pastor of Topeka University UMC and Christine’s husband of nearly 16 years, is handling most of the construction, taking down walls and enhancing a small stage that was already in the shop. 

Rev. Jeff Scott-Potter works on remodeling Cafe Quetzal. Photo by David Burke

Christine Scott-Potter wants the space to serve as a community center during and after its planned 7 a.m.-to-7 p.m. hours, hosting yoga and dance classes and as a meeting space for nonprofits. 

It will have a community partner program where a different nonprofit each month will receive 10% of the sales in exchange for hosting two events in its space that month. 

“We’re showing them, this is how we work together in Topeka,” she said. “It’s important to us that this is a church in the world, connecting to other communities that are making Topeka a transformational place.” 

Until the planned July opening, the café’s “Flight Team,” a seven-member board of directors including the Scott-Potters, members of Countryside, University and Emporia First UMC, as well an Episcopalian and “someone who does not belong to a church, but loves coffee,” Scott-Potter said. 

They will make the Café Quetzal name known during farmers markets and other community events through the next few months, handing out free samples and wearing T-shirts that invite questions about the new place. 

The Scott-Potters’ three daughters are working with them on research-and-development for items that will be on the Café Quetzal menu. 

Some of the coffee will be roasted by The SconeLady in Lawrence, but the main brew will be fair-trade coffee from Guatemala. 

“I think it has a really smooth taste,” Scott-Potter said. “What we’ll go for is a smooth finish that’ll be good as a drip coffee and also good as a latte.” 

 

Guatemalan connection 

Café Quetzal’s mascot and main brew are outward signs of the spiritual transformation Scott-Potter said that she felt visiting the South American country on mission trips. 

Rev. Christine Scott-Potter gives a tour of Cafe Quetzal. Photo by David Burke

In her first appointment, as associate pastor at Emporia First UMC, Scott-Potter was encouraged by the Rev. Jeannie Jensen, senior pastor at the time, to join her on a mission trip. 

“Her passion for Guatemala was just infectious,” Scott-Potter said. 

Initially reluctant because she thought she had no talents that would be of use in Central America, Scott-Potter recalled being persuaded by Jensen to step out of her comfort zone and go. 

“Try not to think of it in terms of the ways you’re going to go in and create change,” Scott-Potter recalled being told. “Think of it as a way you’re going to experience God in a different way and what you can learn from people there.  

“That’s when I began to think of mission as not about what we do for another group of people, but about two communities coming together to work together for the better of both,” Scott-Potter said. 

She has since returned several times, telling stories of bonding with the locals, despite Scott-Potter not knowing Spanish, and developing relationships where she is recognized from one visit to the next. 

That’s why, she said, it was important to have fair trade Guatemalan coffee be the centerpiece. 

“Part of the mission is to support the communities we have come to love in Guatemala,” Scott-Potter said. “We recognize the expansiveness of God’s love and creation, and that extends to other countries.” 

 

Learning process 

Scott-Potter learned greatly about coffeeshop ministry — from the business model to making her first latte — after several trips to Omaha to observe and talk to McKnight at Urban Abbey. 

“Most people underestimate how much work it is,” McKnight said in a phone interview. “It can be really stressful and even overwhelming. It looks really fun on the surface, and I’m not saying it’s not fun, but … as a pastor it requires you to do a lot of things, sometimes, at once. If that’s not a strength of yours, it’s probably not going to feel life-giving as a ministry for you to participate in.” 

McKnight said Scott-Potter understood the level of work and was ready for the challenge. 

“Any church can do this work of being about there and being intentional with your space,” McKnight said. “The coffeeshop, in a really technical way, binds you to outreach, it binds you to an intention of hospitality to other people and what it feels like to welcome people physically in its space.” 

McKnight said that about twice a month she gets phone calls from churches and individuals interested in starting a coffeeshop ministry and seeking advice and counsel. 

“Often churches are looking at a coffeeshop ministry as something that’s going to make them money, and maybe it will, but that’s just not the reason to do it,” she said. “It should be about making relationships … and creating an intentional third space where people feel comfortable.” 

The Rev. Nathan Stanton, congregational excellence coordinator, said Potter is following the lead of not only Urban Abbey in Omaha but Neighbors in Lincoln, which also began as a storefront coffeehouse ministry.

"It is absolutely critical that church starts like this build deep roots in the community right around them," Stanton wrote in an email.

Stanton said that opening a new ministry is as risky as opening a new business.

"Often, if the new church isn’t showing signs or a trajectory to become self-sufficient in the first three years it won’t ever make it. It is more common for churches and businesses to fail; up to 80% fail, now," he wrote.

 

‘Pastorista’ 

Like McKnight, Scott-Potter will call herself a “pastorista” — part pastor, part barista — and sees her work as a blend of serving beverages behind the counter and mingling with the customers. She expects to hire another fulltime employee and at least two part-timers before the café launch. 

Rev. Christine Scott-Potter file photo

Scott-Potter hopes for an atmosphere that is appealing to customers no matter where they are on their faith journey. 

“Our hope is to find that balance of finding someone who comes in and has coffee every day who will never come to a worship experience,” she said. “But we still want to create that atmosphere where for most people to walk in it may have a spiritual but not religious feeling. Because that is comfortable for most people and not overt.” 

Scott-Potter said she is confident in the success of the venture. 

“I think it will work because it’s a non-threatening space that invites people to really be authentically who they are on their faith journey,” she said. “That might mean that they’re pre-faith journey. That might mean they’re really far on their faith journey. We want to create a space where all of that is welcome.” 

She hopes for at least one scheduled worship service a week, perhaps not necessarily on Sunday morning — Scott-Potter is discerning whether to even open on Sunday or observe it as a Sabbath. 

Unlike Urban Abbey, which started as a plant of Omaha First UMC, Café Quetzal will not have a parent church. 

“Because of the nature of what we’re trying to accomplish here, we didn’t want to be specifically connected to another church,” Scott-Potter said. “We wanted to be our own entity, but in the same breath we want to be connected to the larger body of Christ, the larger church in Topeka. We think of it in terms of partnerships.” 

Stanton said the Scott-Potter is one of 150-plus clergy and laity who have attended the incubator since it began in 2014.

"Besides the challenge of being self-sufficient as a ministry with a business tied to it, the coffeehouse ministry will have to build a culture of discipleship that reaches the immediate area around the coffee shop but will build a known brand in Topeka that means something to those near and far," Stanton wrote.

Scott-Potter said she wants those who walk into Café Quetzal to feel a conversational and relational connection. 

“We talk a lot about having a spirit of invitation at Café Quetzal, not something we’ve focused on in the churches I’ve served so far,” she said. “‘Invitational’ sounds scary.”   

A 41-year-old former math teacher, Scott-Potter said that neither being a pastor nor running a business were in her plans 10 years ago. 

“I think people have a lot of fear stepping into something they don’t have a lot of experience in,” she said. “That’s how we are as humans — we do what we’re comfortable with.” 

Through the process of opening the café, Scott-Potter said she’s learned that resources are readily available if she would just ask. 

“There are experts and helpers out there just abundantly,” she said. “I feel like I’ve met so many people and instead of trying to figure out everything myself, my mantra is ‘Find the expert.’ 

“It just grows from there. The more we tell the story, we more we find the experts,” Scott-Potter continued. “It’s been really beautiful to see how not knowing how to do things and being courageous enough to step out and find the people who do know has just really opened so many doors and built so much energy around us.” 

Contact David Burke, content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.

 


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