by Joe Bollig
LAWRENCE — The transitional time after the 8:30 a.m. Mass on Feb. 3 was, as usual at St. John the Evangelist Parish here, a busy time as people socialized and cleared the parking lot.
Mike and Jocile Fisher were first out the door, headed to the St. Bosco Room in the lower level of St. John School. It was their turn to host the St. John Café.
The St. John Café is not one of those “hidden kitchens” that you may have heard about on public radio stations.
In fact, it’s not a real café at all, but a ministry established primarily to feed souls, although the food is a big draw, too. On Feb. 3, the menu included cinnamon rolls, a breakfast casserole, fruit and coffee.
The café is a place for parishioners to gather between the 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. Masses to have a rambling, informal and guided dialogue about any number of topics with one of the Capuchin Franciscan priests who lead the parish.
Like the meandering conversations at the café tables, the ministry had a meandering founding, according to Father Jeffrey Ernst, OFM Cap.
Around 2013, he and fellow Capuchin Father Michael Scully (now pastor of Holy Family Parish in Eudora) began a “theology on tap” type ministry at the Salty Iguana Mexican Restaurant in Lawrence.
The project, however, sputtered and died. A few years later, Father Jeffrey and Samantha Romero, director of stewardship and development at St. John the Evangelist Parish, decided to resurrect the idea but tweak it a bit.
They noticed that parents, who dropped their kids off for religious education at the school, had time on their hands. Wouldn’t it be great, they thought, if they could catechize them, too? And wouldn’t it be great that, while creating something for the parents, they could create something that would promote fellowship for all parishioners?
After a bit of brainstorming, they hit upon the concept of an informal hangout place — a café.
Thus, the St. John Café was born: a few tables with white tablecloths for atmosphere, special coffee mugs (with an inscription from Rom 13:11: “The hour has already come to wake up from your slumber”), a mini buffet of breakfast food and a priest to lead.
And it’s free — no money changes hands. There are also no employees, just volunteers to host.
The café is open generally from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m., August to June. On average, about 20 to 30 people show up but, on Feb. 3, there were only 15 because classes were not held that Sunday. Those who showed up were regulars.
That day, the presiding priest was associate pastor Father Barnabas Eichor, OFM Cap. While the café-goers sat at their tables with their food, he sat in a chair at the front and began the conversation.
Father Barnabas, who celebrated the 8:30 a.m. Mass, kicked it off with this question: “Any thoughts on my homily?”
Father Barnabas talked about Facebook friending, relationships in his family and his work in jail and prison ministry.
“What is the hardest thing we deal with in our lives? Relationships,” he said.
In regard to jail and prison ministry, he observed that many of the people in jails are there with mental health and alcohol- and drug-related problems. This eventually led to a discussion about the brain, the nature of addiction and the action of the Holy Spirit in transforming the lives of people who have seemingly intractable problems.
Christine Wenger is both a regular café-goer and a café volunteer host.
“[I come] mostly for the socialization and meeting other parishioners,” she said. “It’s open question [format]. You can ask the priest any question you like — what’s on your mind or in the news — and get their opinions. And to learn more about our faith.”
Her husband Mike Wenger enjoys the socialization and the give-and-take.
“I come for the fellowship and the education,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to have a free-for-all conversation with people of faith.”
No matter how far-ranging the conversations, they always connect to the church.
“Father Barnabas and Father Jeff always manage to rein us in if we get too far out there,” said Mike. “They do a great job educating us . . . not how we should feel about topics, but to open the mind and heart to better evaluate the information out there, the feelings out there and where the Catholic Church stands.”
What Chuck Johnson appreciates about the café is hearing the perspective of the priests.
“They’re so knowledgeable and insightful,” he said. “You always learn something while you’re here.”
And then, it was closing time. The café-goers and volunteer hosts loaded up the dishwasher with the coffee mugs, distributed the leftovers and cleaned up what remained. The café was closed — but minds and souls remained open. Next week, they’ll be back.