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Can Coffee Convert You To Christianity? Korean Churches Are Betting On It

A picture taken on June 8, 2018 shows a prepared cup of coffee at the "Flat White" cafe in the Qatari capital Doha's Tawar Mall. (Photo by STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
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Tall, dense hedges quiet the din of Vermont Avenue as customers sip espresso and iced tea under the lush veranda. Inside this Craftsman house, built in 1906, small wood tables are arranged in what was once the living room, which has been painted canary yellow. The smell of freshly ground beans mixes with the scent of jasmine and roses. Light jazz plays.

Welcome to Ignatius Café. It serves all the standard java drinks — espressos, americanos, iced lattes — and looks like any other café. But a closer look at the menu reveals that all the drinks, whether you order a double espresso or a painstakingly brewed pour-over coffee, cost $3. When customers don't have cash, the barista lets them have their drinks for free. And you'll spot the occasional nun, enjoying a lemon tea. While Ignatius Café may seem just like any other coffee house, it's owned and operated by St. Agnes Korean Catholic Church, headquartered in the two houses next door.

Americans are leaving religion in droves. A Pew Research Center study found that from 2007 to 2014, the number of Christians in the United States dropped 8 percent. That plunge is steeper among young people. 58 percent of older millennials, those in their late 20s or early 30s, say they seldom or never attend religious services, according to the Pew study. That move away from religion hasn't spared Korean American churches.

Like any business that millennials are supposedly murdering — napkins, diamonds, breakfast cereal, golf, Applebee's — churches are trying to attract consumers with new tactics. A handful of cafes affiliated with churches have quietly popped up around Los Angeles. They serve high-quality coffee and a subtle message. You won't see the words "church" or "Jesus." Instead, you'll hear phrases like "community" and "social justice." Can they balance proselytizing with business?

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"A range of religious groups, from progressive Protestants to conservative Evangelicals, do [outside-of-church initiatives] for different outcomes, but they all do it to be a constant presence in their communities," says professor Richard Flory of USC's Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Coffee Roasting With A Catholic Priest

The Rev. Daeje Choi types in his office as music from the café next door filters in. A priest at St. Agnes Korean Catholic Church for seven years, he opened Ignatius Café in 2011. A few years before that, he fell in love with caffeine culture while tasting his first cup of pour-over coffee — a trend that had come to Korea from Japan.

"I find God in all things," Choi says. "I find God in coffee."

Father Choi's English is a bit shaky as he hands me a pamphlet with the church's core teachings. He believes that the church must be open to everyone, offering a place that's both "beautiful and peaceful." He also believes that the church must serve the poor. That's why Ignatius Café donates its profits to 14 organizations — including St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, mySmileTrain, Catholic Relief Services and Sudan Relief Services — across 10 countries.

Most customers know that the cafe is associated with the nearby Catholic church. They're here because it's cozy, comfortable and a good place to work but they have no intention of attending services.

"This place is so cute," says Madeline McClosky as she types away at her keyboard. Like most people, she found the cafe through Yelp. Ignatius has no signage and is located in a residential neighborhood. "The fact that it's attached to a church doesn't bother me."

If patrons show no interest in becoming congregants, that doesn't bother Choi. "Everyone can come and enjoy," he says with a smile.

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A Trend Blooms

Ignatius Café has been so successful, a group from nearby Abundant Life Presbyterian Church asked Choi to teach them how to run their own coffee shop.

In 2014, they opened E.Um Café located on Wilshire Blvd. in Koreatown. Roughly translated from Korean, E.Um means connection. White vinyl letters on the walls of the café — love, family, connection — emphasize the sentiment. The only mention of God is on a half-obscured sign next to the espresso machine. The reference is a tongue-in-cheek paraphrasing of Benjamin Franklin's dictum about beer: "Caffeine is proof that God loves us and wants us to pay attention."

Behind the counter, Harry Park fills drink orders. A few years out of high school, he takes time to talk to a teenager looking for a summer job. "Try to get the most experience out of everything, " Parks says to the young man as he makes his lemon ice tea.

E.Um looks like many pour-over coffee shops in Koreatown: wood floors, white tile, large photographs depicting Italian destinations.

"Instead of shameless evangelism, the church can use this cafe to give back to the community," Park says. "It's implicit evangelism. It's showing random acts of kindness."

The cafe provides a community gathering space in a back room for Bible study.

In a quiet corner of E.Um Cafe, Danny Lee has his laptop open. He found this cafe last year after googling "best place to study." He attends church weekly but didn't realize this cafe was church-owned until his second visit. The religious ties don't matter to him. "I just want to be here because it's comfortable and a good place to study," Lee says.

In January 2018, Olympic Presbyterian bought E.Um. The cafe wasn't making enough money and Abundant Life needed to sell it. Park says that after many months of scraping by, he thinks the business is starting to do better. Unlike Ignatius Café, E.Um is a for-profit business.

Flory has seen many church-run businesses struggle to turn a profit. He says their business model may be colored by their experiences with religious organizations, where attendees make donations.

"A lot of these groups think of their work purely in church terms but they also need to think in business terms," Flory says. "This is the part that a lot of people don't think through. How do you make it self-sustaining?"

Back at E.Um Cafe, a question comes up. If customers can't tell that the coffee shop is associated with a church, has it failed?

"Jesus doesn't require you to know him," Park says. "You only find him if you seek him out."

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