‘Crossing’ serves up coffee, music, community

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark.—A guitarist plays onstage. Two teens face off in a game of checkers. The espresso machine stays busy as a line forms at the cash register. Some people take the opportunity to listen to the music; others claim a corner of the room for conversation and listen to each other.

It’s a typical weekend evening at The Crossing, a non-profit coffeehouse on Russellville’s West C Street.

Or is that a church on West C Street?

Actually, it’s both.

The Crossing, a non-profit coffeehouse, was launched in April by Wesley United Methodist Church in Russellville, Ark., to support local charities. ARKANSAS UNITED METHODIST PHOTOS BY AMY FORBUS

The Crossing is a ministry of Wesley UMC Russellville. The congregation in 2010 launched a satellite worship service at the Arkansas Tech Wesley Foundation. Called “Wesley @ Wesley,” it drew a good number of college students and some other folks, too, but leaders felt called to take a greater risk in reaching out. They began looking at potential locations for a re-launch and found the empty storefront near the railroad crossing.

“We decided ‘coffeehouse,’ and I just went crazy,” said Paula Reeder, an elementary school teacher who manages the food-and-beverage side of The Crossing. “I got a ‘how to start a coffeehouse’ book, located a website that sold coffeehouse equipment and started talking with those people.”

She also started attending Wesley UMC finance committee meetings, bringing home-baked desserts and her ideas. “I literally got the finance crew eating out of my hand,” she said, “and convinced them that yes, the church needed a coffeehouse.”

With the go-ahead from the finance committee and grants from the Arkansas Conference’s Catch the Vision program and new church start fund, the church signed a lease on the storefront and invested in a commercial-grade espresso machine.

Since its April 20 opening, The Crossing has expanded from one Sunday worship service to two, held at 9:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. It also has extended its coffeehouse operating hours, offering a light lunch menu on weekdays, an open mic night on Tuesdays and—coming soon in response to a request from some regulars—Thursday karaoke night.

Giving back

In many ways, The Crossing looks like a typical coffeehouse-style performance venue. But one feature stands out: the Giving Wall.

The Giving Wall demonstrates The Crossing’s commitment to its community. Each person who buys a specialty coffee drink (such as an espresso or a latte) receives one dollar in “play money” for the Giving Wall. They then use that voucher to choose which local cause will receive a dollar from their beverage purchase.

Liz Chrisman (center) sits down to visit with friends at The Crossing. Ms. Chrisman, a graduate student and photographer at Arkansas Tech University, showed some of her artwork at The Crossing on a recent evening. ARKANSAS UNITED METHODIST PHOTOS BY AMY FORBUS

In little more than four months, the Giving Wall has generated more than $2,500 to be distributed among nine different causes, only some of which are church-related. The rest of the money covers operational expenses. Making a profit doesn’t figure into the business plan—because it’s actually a ministry plan.

“We’ve just spent a lot of time building community with the people who have come on Friday and Saturday nights who are looking for a place to be,” said the Rev. DeeDee Autry, Wesley UMC’s pastor. She counts the informal work of building trust as one of her chief goals.

“People are learning that I’m the pastor of the church that’s doing this,” she says. “I don’t push it on anybody. It’s just about making connections and relationships with people, reaching the community.”

Artists’ haven

Musicians and visual artists are among the community members who see The Crossing as a valuable part of the city.

Guitarist John Cotton has become a regular performer there, both as a solo act and with a jazz quartet. Musicians like Mr. Cotton play The Crossing for tips, and some sell their own CDs and merchandise.

“We used to play at Higher Grounds a lot, and that’s been closed now for seven years or so. And so a lot of the musicians haven’t had a venue to play in Russellville at all,” he said. “It’s a real nice place to play. They’ve got a really nice sound system, so I just have to bring my guitar and plug in.”

Liz Chrisman, a photographer who is finishing her master’s degree in multimedia journalism, helped with the initial marketing ramp-up for The Crossing, donating graphic design services and one of her photos to decorate the space. She set up a showing of her photography at The Crossing during one of downtown Russellville’s recent Art Walk events.

“It seems like the community’s kind of embraced [The Crossing] really quickly,” she said.

Even when she isn’t showing her work there, Ms. Chrisman stops by for the musical acts as well as for the desserts and coffee.

“They handcraft every beverage,” she said. “They grind the espresso beans right there in front of you. It’s some of the best coffee I’ve had.”

“The Giving Wall” features ways customers can direct a portion of The Crossing’s profits back to the community. One dollar generated from the sale of each specialty coffee drink goes to one of the causes on the Giving Wall, and the buyer chooses which cause. ARKANSAS UNITED METHODIST PHOTOS BY AMY FORBUS

Growing

With more than 1,100 people following The Crossing on Facebook, weekend events—including 8 p.m. worship—bring solid attendance.

“Most of the people who come on Sunday nights originated from our Friday and Saturday night crowds,” said Billy Reeder, a worship leader who also shares some preaching duties. “There is really a deep sense of community that’s growing around the place.”

On many music nights, The Crossing’s crowd spills out onto the sidewalk. They’ve added exterior speakers for the folks who gather outside, and sometimes they even get permission to block off the street to make more room for everyone.

“We always knew there were people in the community who were never going to come to a church,” said Beth Latham, a member of Wesley UMC who recently became a licensed local pastor and preaches occasionally at The Crossing. “Between the music venue and the coffeehouse and just having an atmosphere where somebody that was maybe turned off by church in the past could come . . . that’s been kind of cool.”

Ms. Autry echoes the sentiment.

“I’ve been a pastor for 25-plus years, and we always talk about reaching the people, but the day we opened this, I really got the true picture of what it means to go where the people are,” she said. “Because the people that are coming here would not come to my church. And the people who are claiming it as vital to their life now, and to their community, they wouldn’t have a reason to come to my church. But over time, and by building a relationship, we’ll get to share Christ together.”

Ms. Forbus is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist, the newspaper of the Arkansas Conference.

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