By Jeff Brumley
Missional ministry usually involves a church searching beyond its four walls for ways to tackle the pressing needs of its community.
“I agree with the whole missional concept,” said Mart Gray, pastor of Covenant Community Church in Elba, Ala. “But here we are trying to do some things in a different way.”
For Gray and his Cooperative Baptist Fellowship partner church, “different” includes offering a full lunch and coffee bar menu from inside the four walls of the Just Folk Coffeehouse in downtown Elba. The church-owned and operated venture is also a venue for bluegrass, folk and other performances. It’s also a gallery for local artists.
Regular patrons say there is no other place downtown where residents and visitors can get everything from pimento cheese sandwiches to flavored mochas. “I eat here two to three times a week,” said Alabama State Sen. Jimmy Holley, a Republican from Elba. “This is unique for a small town.”
That uniqueness goes beyond meeting the dining needs in the downtown area to potentially helping to save it. “It’s a motivator for others who own buildings downtown,” said Jimmy Harrison, a member of both the church and the Community Development Corporation that’s trying to revive Elba’s fragile economy. “It’s a magnet.”
‘A niche church’
Gray didn’t necessarily have all that in mind when he started Covenant Community Church — which worships in a building about four miles from downtown — in 2004. Emerging from the decades of theological turmoil in the Southern Baptist Convention, the former music minster wanted to create a spiritual refuge for Christians who felt out of place in SBC-dominated Coffee County.
And not just for moderate Baptists, he added. “People who are Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic – Enterprise to the east has some of those churches, but we don’t in Elba.”
That’s why Covenant Community is “intentionally non-denominational,” though it partners with CBF, he said. “We give the individual the right to self-identify,” Gray added. “That was a niche in our community that wasn’t being served.”
A chance to serve another niche – hungry employees downtown – came in 2007 when a vacant theater building was gifted to the church by a local family.
Just Folk also doubles as the church office and a place where young adult and Bible study groups can meet on evenings.
Gray said he also considers diners as part of his flock when they are at Just Folk. “That’s church, too,” he said. “People come in here, sit down with me and pretty soon they are telling me about something going on their life.”
Others see Just Folk as meeting yet another need as an anchor for an ailing city economy.
Still reeling from major flooding in the 1990s, the square is ringed mostly by empty store fronts. The population has dropped 6 percent to 3,900 in the past decade. Only 300 of the 1,500 people who work in the city also live there.
“That’s 1,200 paychecks leaving Elba,” Harrison said.
What’s left in the square, besides the Coffee County courthouse, is a florist, hardware store, gift shop, cleaners and antique store. A theater is being restored but the rest is vacant.
Economic bright spot
The coffee shop and restaurant, florist Chris Foley said, has been one of the few bright spots around the square, and its members who volunteer as cooks and servers are as much of a draw to the business as its food and beverages.
But Just Folk has its own challenges sometimes. “There are a lot of people in town who won’t go in there because of those disagreements,” he said, referring to fallouts with majority Southern Baptists in town.
Gray won’t touch that one. “I’m not interested in firing shots at the SBC – for that I am not your guy,” Gray said. “My focus is helping people feel connected.”
‘Just a regular hotdog’
The feeling of connectedness is what drew Jerrice Davis, a life long Southern Baptist, to Community Covenant in 2009 and kept her there. “It just draws you in,” the retired banker said.
Just Folk has also drawn her in, she said. As the church secretary, she sits right inside its front door and handles customers as well as church business.
One phone call she answered on Monday was a perfect example. “Soup with a pimento cheese sandwich?” Davis said after greeting the caller. “Oh, she’s going to like that. And just a regular hotdog, right?”
Running a church office in a bustling diner and coffee shop means having to deal with constant interruptions, Davis said. “I take to-go orders and if it gets really busy, I’ll work the cash register.”
She added that doing such work is a ministry for her and other church members who volunteer daily at Just Folk as cooks and waiters.
‘Ministering 6 days a week’
Meanwhile, the church also participates in more traditional — and equally necessary — missional ministries in Elba, Gray said.
Members regularly participate in a Church of Christ-run food bank, provide gifts and treats to local teachers and run a diabetes screening program. “That has turned up quite a number who did not know they had diabetes — including myself,” Gray said.
But Just Folk is definitely central to the congregation’s personality and style. The church is structured more like a non-profit and has a board of directors. It also has a community advisory council, a group of church and non-church members who have a say in the entertainment programming at Just Folk. Altogether, Gray said the coffee shop’s five-day operation fits right in with its Sunday worship.
“I consider that we’re ministering six days a week,” he said.